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shameless pleading

Gal

And don’t call me Shirley.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the term “gal” originate, meaning a girl or female, or a female older than early teens? And what age group does it include? Did it always refer to females? — Cliff.

Now there’s a word I haven’t seen in a while. In fact, I was just thinking about it, and I came to the conclusion that I have never actually used the word “gal” in a non-sarcastic or non-jocular sense (that is, as a serious synonym of “girl” or “young woman”). One’s mileage may vary, of course, and the word certainly seems to be alive and well in tabloid-esque news headlines (“Charlie Sheen’s Party Gal Reveals All About 36 Hour Party Binge”), although the apparently eternally seductive rhyme of “gal pal” obviously explains many of them (“George Clooney gal pal Elisabetta Canalis shocked he’s staying single,” Vancouver Sun, 1/24/2011).

My aversion to “gal” is, obviously, generational. I remember my father using it un-selfconsciously, and it was accepted popular slang as of the 1950s and 60s (“Discussing cool and the degrees of coolness, one boy reported: ‘If you like a guy or gal, they’re cool’,” Newsweek, 1950). But by the time I was in college, “gal” applied to a young woman was considered as disrespectful and demeaning as “chick” or “girl.” I guess I absorbed the zeitgeist of my youth pretty thoroughly, because to this day I’m uncomfortable even using the word “girl” for anyone over the age of about twelve. “Gal”? Fuhgeddaboudit. In the 1940s, however, both “gal” and “girl” were applied to women in their twenties, thirties and beyond without, apparently, a second thought (e.g., “His Girl Friday,” a 1940 movie starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and the widespread use in the 1950s of “gal friday” to mean a female assistant).

The fact that the semantic social fortunes of “gal” and “girl” have waxed and waned in concert is not surprising given that the two are, drum roll please, actually the same word. “Gal” first appeared as slang in England in the late 18th century and originated as a Cockney pronunciation of the word “girl.” It was considered, not surprisingly, an abomination by language arbiters of the day (“Improprieties, commonly called Vulgarisms, [include] … Gal for girl,” The Columbian Grammar, 1795). Interestingly, the “lower classes” weren’t the only ones putting their stamp on “girl” at the time. By the mid-19th century the upper crust of London were speaking (and writing) of “gels,” which was simply “girl” with an upper-class (or affectedly upper-class) pronunciation. On the Gilligan’s Island Scale of Social Class Markers, one can easily picture the blustering Skipper blurting “gal” in every third sentence, while zillionaire Thurston Howell III would definitely say “gel” in his Locust Valley Lockjaw (the stereotypical upper-class American style of speaking through clenched teeth, named after the wealthy North Shore of Long Island). As far as I can tell, “gel” never really established a foothold in the US outside of ruling-class redoubts such as Grosse Pointe and Greenwich, but it’s still used today in Britain, often to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “an upper-class or aristocratic young Englishwoman.”

Incidentally, if you’re wondering where “girl” itself came from, you’re in good company. No one knows for sure, although etymologists have several fairly complicated theories. All we know for certain is that “girl” first appeared in the written record in Middle English (as “garl” or “geerl”) meaning simply “a child” of either sex. Use of “girl” to mean specifically “a young woman” dates to the 14th century.

6 comments to Gal

  • Graham Chambers

    The term “girl” for a young female may have come into use in the 14th century, but Shakespeare was still using it to mean a young person of either sex in the 16th century.

  • Donna Holumzer

    I have just been told by two black female co-workers that the term”gal” means female horse. So when older white men call them gal they are calling them a horse. It is a negative word for black women when white males call them that. All this is new to me.

  • Devia

    uh – black slavery = GAL
    men – got boy and son – to strip them of adulthood and dignity of family bonds – it removed their status as “productive adults”
    women had to have an equivalent and gal became the word of choice – and as far as I am led to understand had some relation or bearing to livestock …

    It is not only negative but derogatory and insulting and the horse reference is ringing bells for me – I found my version of it in historical slavery archives … so it IS out there if this “word detective” bothered to go LOOK around – My VERY british family never uses the word however my sold into slavery and got out side uses it LOTS so – YOU figure it out …

  • Terry

    Gal means woman. It can be prefaced with young or old, or any descriptive pronoun. There is no racial slur attached. I prefer it rather than call everyone Guy – which is a man’s name, specifically Guy Faulks, who was hanged by James I of England.

  • Linda

    A colleague referred to women generally as gals during a presentation. An African-american lady politely approached him afterward and advised him of the negative connotation of the word “gal” from the days of slavery. While I am sure he will not use the term in the future and had no idea that the term was ever pejorative the encounter left me puzzled. My family are all immigrants who arrived in the US after the civil war. Naturally, I have learned that there are some words that are currently considered racist or show a lack of sensitivity and do not use them. I also know that there are words that have had other popular meanings in the distant and near past that are unused now. Gal is one of them. To bring up a 150+ year-old meaning of a common word that has had so many other meanings since then and to be insulted by it is a troubling sensitivity. People cannot be held to that standard of “political correctness” and expect to have any communication at all. Any word, if used sarcastically, or disrespectfully can offend. We need to concentrate more on context and currency and let the past remain the past.

  • R. Williams

    I have been frustrated to no end by two coworkers who insist that the use of the word “gal” is pejorative and should never ever ever be used. I do not like referring to our young adult female students at the college “girls” as it seems diminutive, and condescending. I’ve spent half my life in the south, and “gal” is frequently used as a kindly female equivalent to “guy” (as girls are to boys), and frankly context is relevant. Just as there is nothing wrong with the word “boys”, calling an adult male “boy” is bound to end in offense… thus context is relevant. Being told that the world “gal” can only be judged by its period of use during black oppression is rather frustrating to me, as unlike other more provocative words, its status as good or bad seems highly variable.

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