An easy way to understand the gulf between the two words is to try swapping one with the other, said Hillary Keeney, 46, who lives in New Orleans and writes books on mysticism with her husband: “No one is going to say ‘woman dinner,’ or ‘women’s night out,’” she said. “That’s too serious.”
It is not the first time women have reached for a different word to encapsulate their ambivalent feelings about womanhood. Almost three decades ago, women wrestled with what at the time was a new embrace of “gal,” according to an article in The New York Times.
“Restless once again, we are struggling to find a word that conveys snazziness and style, a casual term for the double-X set, a word without condescension or sneer, something more relaxed than ‘woman,’ something less fussy than ‘female,’ our equivalent of guy,” the Times journalist Natalie Angier wrote in 1995. “A delicious egalitarian word like … gal.”
Still, “gal” had its critics, just as “girl” does now. Upon catching wind of “girl dinner,” Joyce Meggett, 68, a librarian at Harry S. Truman College in Chicago, said she initially found the word condescending and dismissive. (Later, though, she realized that “the whole girl thing was a lot more nuanced than I thought.”)
And so while “girl” may fill a particular void at the moment — offering a capacious container for just about any feeling one might have about gender, adulthood, feminism and more — it probably won’t be long before it’s used a slightly different way or replaced altogether.
“I’ve always believed that gender is like language — it’s as infinitely broad and enormous as language is,” Ms. Plett said. “There’s an infinite amount of things you can do with language, to make new things and mold it to your own wishes.”