By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word ‘girl’, like many everyday words which we might assume have perfectly ordinary and straightforward histories, actually has a surprising etymology. To explore the origins of the word ‘girl’ we need to think about both the word’s etymological meaning and its use over time.
Let’s consider these issues in reverse order, beginning with the early history of the word ‘girl’ and then working our way back to its etymology. The word ‘girl’ first turns up in English writing in around 1300. Throughout the Middle Ages, ‘girl’ was a gender-neutral term, used to refer to a child of either sex, or to any young person. The Oxford English Dictionary provides an early example of the word’s usage, from the great medieval allegorical poem Piers Plowman, written in the late 1370s:
Gramer for girles I garte ferst write,
And bet hem wiþ a baleis but ȝif þei wolde lerne.
‘Girles’ here means ‘children’, and one suspects that more boys than girls (in the modern, gender-specific use of the word) would have used such a grammar textbook, given the gender inequalities in education back in the Middle Ages.
The author of Piers Plowman was a man named William Langland, who, after Geoffrey Chaucer, is the most famous English poet of the fourteenth century (with their contemporary John Gower no longer as famous as he once was). Chaucer, too, used ‘girl’ to refer to children of either sex. In his Canterbury Tales, in his ‘General Prologue’ written in the 1380s, Chaucer tells us, referring to the Summoner, that
In daunger hadde he at his owene gise
The yonge girles of the diocise,
And knew hir conseil, and was al hir reed.
A gerland hadde he set upon his heed,
As greet as it were for an ale-stake;
A bokeleer hadde he maad him of a cake.
So what did people do when they wanted to refer to male child, or a female child? It appears that ‘knave girl’ – from ‘knave’ referring to a young man – was sometimes employed as a specific term for boys: yes, ‘knave girls’ were, actually, boys. One fifteenth-century book uses this term to refer to boys: ‘Here knaue gerlys I xal steke.’
However, between the late fourteenth century, when Langland and Chaucer were using ‘girl’ in a gender-neutral sense, and the late fifteenth century, something happened. The word ‘boy’ started to be used to refer specifically to male children. ‘Boy’ first turned up in the language at around the same time as ‘girl’, in the early fourteenth century. However, it tended either to be used to refer to a boy servant specifically, or else it was employed disparagingly to refer to a ‘knave’ or young male of low status.
By the mid-fifteenth century, however, ‘boy’ had come to mean ‘male child’. This meant that ‘girl’ was used more commonly to refer to … well, to girls, as we’d now call them. A male child was a boy, and a female child was a girl. There was a marvellous period of transition when the term ‘gay girl’ was sometimes used to distinguish female girls from male, ‘knave girls’.
Nobody is quite sure where ‘boy’ came from, by the way. Its etymology remains a mystery. It’s possible it came originally from a proper name: there are surnames such as litelboie and Godeboye attested in the thirteenth century, before the word first appears in use. It’s also been suggested that it is derived from the French emboié meaning ‘fettered in chains’, and this fits with the original meaning of ‘boy’ as ‘servant’. But nobody really knows for sure, and these are just theories.
But what about the etymology of ‘girl’? Frustratingly, that’s no clearer. The OED says ‘origin unknown’, although it goes on to outline several competing theories. In the 1960s, F. C. Robinson suggested that ‘girl’ might be a Middle English descendant of the earlier Old English word gyrela meaning ‘dress’ or ‘apparel’. But this theory has been contested by other linguists. Curiously, the etymologies of ‘boy’, ‘girl’, ‘lad’, and ‘lass’ are all shrouded in mystery.
But it’s interesting to note that ‘girl’ was originally a term used to describe both girls and boys. Indeed, ‘man’ was also gender-neutral when it first emerged into the language. But that’s a story for another time (and another article).