Sir Roger Gale sounds like an old-bufferish knight of the shires, but he once worked as a disc-jockey on a pirate radio station. Last week he got into hot water when he said on the radio that his wife was ‘utterly dedicated to her job, as indeed are the other girls in my office’. Before he knew it, Today got some American academic on air to denounce him. ‘We know, looking in the dictionary,’ she said, ‘that girl means a young woman only up to the age of 11 or 12.’
This bossy woman should get a bigger dictionary to look in. There is plenty of evidence that girl has meant ‘woman’ for centuries. In its earliest history it signified ‘a young person’ of either sex. The Oxford English Dictionary avers that it still does in Wexford, hard as it may be to believe.
Even without a dictionary to look in, we all know girl can mean a grown-up. Me and My Girl is a popular musical not dealing with kiddies. London after dark is swamped with women having a girls’ night out. A dear old girl is on a par with a nice old boy. Shakespeare uses girl for ‘adult women’ in more than one play.
Where has this doctrinaire American been? She seems determined to find girl offensive. Sir Roger spoke in an informal register, but must we talk like a management textbook about people with whom we get on well? The would-be genteel may say ladies, which is twee. Women can make them sound like fishwives. Girls is friendly.
True, prostitutes are called girls. A.H. Clough wrote in 1848 of ‘The streets of the dissolute city,/ Where dressy girls slithering by upon pavements give sign for accosting.’ That was in ‘The Bothie of Toper-na-Fuosich’, a title the poet discovered with embarrassment hid an obscene Gaelic pun on the meaning ‘bearded well’, for which reason he changed it to ‘The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich’. ‘I was so disgusted with the mishap of the name,’ he wrote to William Allingham, ‘that I have never had pleasure in it [the poem] since.’
We all make verbal errors, but I doubt if Sir Roger will in future be disgusted with the word girl.