a female child
a female adult, especially a young one
Origin and usage
The noun girl is of unknown origin. It was originally used to refer to a child of either sex. When it started to be used to refer to young women, in the late 14th century, it was frequently preceded by the adjective ‘gay’.
Today is International Day of the Girl, a UNICEF-sponsored day designed to highlight and address the needs and challenges girls face, while promoting girls‘ empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights. This year’s theme is ‘GirlForce: Unscripted and Unstoppable’ (note the trendy CamelCase layout of GirlForce). Girl is one of those words that need to be handled with a certain amount of care. Its use to refer to a female child is always uncontroversial, but as Macmillan Dictionary points out, it risks being offensive when used to refer to an adult woman, even a young one. The main exception to this is when girls is used by women to talk to or about a group of women of any age. This applies especially to the phrase ‘the girls‘, so if someone says ‘I’m having lunch with the girls tomorrow’ there is no way of telling if they are 18, 80, or something in between. There are two adjectives derived from girl: girly (or girlie) and girlish. While girlish is straightforward, meaning simply ‘looking or behaving like a young girl‘, girly is more nuanced and can have negative connotations. When a prominent politician recently referred to a predecessor as a ‘girly swot‘ this was not intended to be a compliment. The insult has been reclaimed as a badge of honour by some, who have said that far from being a source of shame, studiousness is something to be praised and proud of; an appropriate message for the International Day of the Girl.
“I think the girl who is able to earn her own living and pay her own way should be as happy as anybody on earth. The sense of independence and security is very sweet.”
“You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognise your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur.”
(Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)
lass, colleen, lassie, gal