A girl is a young female human, as opposed to a boy, a young male human. The age at which a female person transitions from girl to woman varies in different societies, typically the transition from adolescence to maturity is taken to occur in the late teens.
The English word from 1290 designated a child of either sex. During the 14th century its sense was narrowed to specifically female children. Subsequently, it was extended to refer also to mature but unmarried young women since the 1530s. Usage in the sense of (romantic) "sweetheart" arose in the 17th century.
Historically, girls faced discrimination and limitations on the roles they were expected to play in their societies, and the United Nations targeted discrimination in schooling to end by 2010. An ongoing debate about the influences of nature versus nurture in shaping the behavior of girls and boys raises questions about whether the roles played by girls are the result of inborn differences or socialization. Images of girls in art, literature, and popular culture often demonstrate assumptions about gender roles.
In almost all cultures, girls have been socialized into gender roles. Girls have traditionally been associated with playing with dolls and toy cooking and cleaning equipment, while boys have been associated with toys and games that require more physical activity or simulated violence, such as toy trucks, balls, and toy guns. Girls are less often encouraged to pursue sports, with the exception of those that might be considered "feminine," such as figure skating or gymnastics; or those considered "gender-neutral," such as tennis. They may be prevented from participating in many of the same activities that boys participate in at the same age, as a matter of protecting them from perceived outside dangers, such as boys and men, or anything that may cause physical injury. Sometimes boys are presumed to be more responsible than girls, except in the cases of caring for younger children, which is sometimes thought to be instinctual in girls. Girls, as a group, may be perceived as being more docile than boys, and as being less capable of rational decision making and more governed by emotional responses.
The reasons for this perceived difference in the behavior of girls and boys are a controversial topic in both public debate and the sciences. The idea that differences in gender roles originate in differences in biology originates from 19th-century anthropology; more recently, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have turned to this problem to explain those differences by treating them as evolutionary adaptations to a lifestyle of Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies. For example, the need to take care of offspring may have limited the females' freedom to hunt and to assume positions of power. Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge University professor of psychology and psychiatry, argues that "the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, while the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems."
On the other hand, feminists have argued that gender roles are the result of stereotypes and socialization rather than any innate biological differences. Due to the influence of (among others) Simone de Beauvoir's feminist works and Michel Foucault's reflections on sexuality, the idea that gender was unrelated to sex gained ground during the 1980s, especially in sociology and cultural anthropology.
The biological viewpoint of gender roles is not that all gender distinctions result from biology, but rather that biology has an influence. Some feminists deny this, but many feminists agree that both biology and upbringing have an influence on gender roles, with the question being the relative importance of each. This conflict is often called nature versus nurture.
Several studies, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment of the OECD, have shown that, in developed countries, girls usually obtain better scores than boys do in secondary schools in Literature and Language, boys on the other hand tend to score higher in mathematics. However, their choices afterwards in postsecondary school are often very different and lead them to less socially recognized professions. Relatively few girls become engineers, though in the USA, more do become doctors.
The word "girl" first appears during the Middle Ages. The Anglo-Saxon word gyrela = "ornament" may have given rise to the modern pronunciation of "girl", if the change in meaning can be explained. While there is no general agreement about the etymology of "girl", it is found in manuscripts dating from 1290 with the meaning "a child" (of either gender). A male child was called a "Knave girl"; a female child was called a "gay girl". Like many other words that originally were not gender specific, "girl" gradually came to be used primarily and then exclusively for one gender. There are manuscripts dating from 1530 in which the word "girl" is used to mean "maiden" (also originally applied to both genders), or any unmarried human female. Within little more than a century, however, the word began to take on implications of social class. In 1668, in his Diary, Samuel Pepys uses the word to mean a female servant of any age: "girl" = "serving girl". Note the parallel shift in the meaning of the word "maid".
By the 1700s, there was a difference in some uses of the word between England and the Americas. In England, a "girl" was often a serving girl, while in America a "girl" was often a sweetheart or "girlfriend", for example, in the lyrics of the popular song "The Girl I Left Behind Me". In England, the word "girl" was also used as a euphemism for "prostitute", as for example by Richard Steele in The Spectator.
In America today, the word "girl" is often used as an intended compliment or used humorously. A woman of a certain age might be called a girl to suggest that she looked younger than she was, or a group of women might speak of themselves as "us girls", though all were well over the age of maidenhood. Adult women will sometimes refer to themselves as "girls", as in "We're having a girls' night out" or "It's a girl thing". But social shifts generally permit only the female gender group themselves to use such terminology without giving offence.
With the rise of feminism, the use of "girl" applied to any adult female became offensive to many, especially given the fact that the word was so often used to indicate low social status, low morals, weakness, or homosexuality. There is a parallel objection to use of the word "boy" to describe a male over the age of puberty. In modern usage, "girl" is properly restricted to mean a human female who has not reached adulthood, and some would restrict the usage to prepubescent girls. The term "young woman" is sometimes used in the period between childhood and full adulthood.
Using the word "girl" to refer to a male is usually meant as insulting, such as "You throw like a girl". The more insulting "girly-boy", which originated in 1589 as "girle-boy", is used to indicate a weak or "sissy" male. Calling a male a girl often serves as a provocation to fight. While outsiders might use "girl" or "girly" as a pejorative to refer to a gay male, within the gay community it is used as a term of endearment.
The word girl has many synonyms, including "belle", "chick", "doll", "gal", "lass" or "lassie", "maiden", and "miss". The slang word "gal", as in "Buffalo gals won't you come out tonight", is a variant pronunciation of girl.
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