I was writing a disclaimer on a post to try ensuring readers would understand that my calling female people “girls” isn’t an infantilization of female people, and it started becoming its own post. Word-use caries by demographic, by region, culture, country… This is something I’ve struggled with when writing book things because it’s far too easy these days to be “cancelled” over using a word that has never been offensive where someone is from, but that has become offensive where others are. I’ve seen YouTubers “cancelled” for words they used a decade or more ago, when those words were common, but that have become offensive. What words to we use today will get us in trouble in another decade, when they’re no longer acceptable to use as we use them today? This can make speaking or writing at all incredibly stressful. Far too often, our context is ignored, with new context applied to turn innocent things into offensive, bad, shame-on-you-forever things.
In short…or long…to start with “girl”, and then expand outward, since that is what inspired this particular post:
I alternate between calling female people girls and women, while also talking about how some things in a book are used to indicate if someone is “a good girl” or a “bad girl.” In said post, there is a lot of slut-shaming and woman-hate used to denote who is supposed to be good and who is supposed to be bad. At times I refer to gatherings of female people as just girls, without positive or negative qualifiers. Each individual use, aside from “good/bad girl,” when taken in context, are innocuous. Yet it’s too easy for someone out there to get horribly offended because in their personal world, the day someone turns 18, “girl” is no longer allowed, and the context doesn’t matter one iota.
In my social sphere, we also refer to ourselves as girls and to the men in our lives as “the boys.” We don’t call them that in place of their names, like “Hey, Boy!” but we will talk about how the boys are going to see a movie this weekend, or let’s leave our kids with the boys so we can go do some girl stuff, and talk about planning a makeup night for us girls. So not this post serves as the all-but-mandatory-in-2019 disclaimer that your area where “girl” or another word might be bad isn’t necessarily the same in my area where it’s not, and there’s literally no way to use words that can’t offend everybody. I once lived in an area where calling female humans “woman” and “ma’am” were taken as calling someone old because they’re ladies and or a miss,(I had a customer demand to talk to the manager when I said “ma’am,” since she was offended I didn’t caller her “mademoiselle,” something not exactly used in common US vernacular), yet there are areas where “lady” is seen as insinuating a certain behavior stereotypical of the sex, “be lady-like” and such.
And another disclaimer, because 2019: The phrase “girl stuff” does NOT exclude people of the male sex who identify as women, or people of the male sex who identify as male who enjoy things like makeup. It’s just doing stuff considered stereotypically feminine with a group of friends who can also share some general bitching about the way sexism still impacts us, how much dealing with birth control can be annoying [before saying that’s bigoted against transwomen, know that, in my group, not all of us can just toss birth control and get pregnant–I myself am infertile and needed IVF yet can still commiserate about the lack of viable alternatives for penis-havers other than condoms, which can break, and how stupid it is that medical stuff tends to be tested with men in mind, but when it comes to thinks like birth control, that’s “woman stuff”], and so on. It doesn’t mean transwomen aren’t women, or that transmen aren’t allowed. A friend’s young son enjoys makeup stuff, and would be hurt if she and a non-childed friend and my daughter and I went to Ulta without him, and so he’s free to join us for girl stuff, and he knows boys can do stuff called “girl stuff” and my daughter knows girls can do stuff called “boy stuff,” and both only get offended if something is said to be “for” one sex or the other.
But others might see it as being exclusionary based on their experiences, and there are people as well who think that we should literally eliminate every word that can be connected to a sex or gender, no matter how tangential, because they’re offended by not identifying with one or the other, with both, or sometimes they do, but think gender identity divides people in bad ways. Yet still there are others who see it as important to have spaces for people of marginalized sex and genders (i.e. cisgender women, transwomen, and transmen) can freely converse without what can feel like oversight from the ruling sex (cisgender men). It’s very easy to see how both sides can feel this way, but there’s no way to meet halfway on this. So what do you do?
So take a deep breath and remember that different words have different connotations depending on where we are, and where you are isn’t necessarily going to be like where I am, and where I am isn’t necessarily going to be like where you are. Keep in mind different connotations of different words exist, and that personal experiences factor in, and look at the total context of what is being said, instead of taking one word of phrase on its own and presuming it must be meant with whatever meaning is used in a different part of the country or world.
This goes not only for words regarding gender identity, but many other words. Right now, I’m sitting in a country where “gypsy” is not a bad word, and when I asked a couple friends of mine who identifies as that, as in ancestral roots and all are gypsy, they both, independently, told me that refusing to call them gypsies is stripping them of their cultural identities and that refusing to say it is like saying their culture is so bad that it can’t be spoken of by name (so, like Voldemort versus he-who-shall-not-be-named). One of them told me that “traveller,” which is a common term in the US now, doesn’t connect. The other said not all Roma identify as gypsies, and using Roma instead is saying all Roma people have the same culture. (Some latinx people feel the same about all latin cultures being lumped together as the same, and so prefer to be called Mexican, Cubano, etc.) I can’t remember which, but one said that people who think the problem gypsies need to worry about is what they’re called need to try living in an apartment building of other gypsies that gets condemned to get gypsies out of the area. Another thing pointed out is that it’s what is being said that will determine if someone’s being offensive. “Filthy gypsy” is absolutely bad, or saying “gypsy” in a tone you use for something unsavory, but just a a general word, on it’s on, it’s not bad. Yet in the US, you may as well be banned from existence for calling someone a gypsy, even if you are one, and even if the people spoken about are in Europe and want it used (one of my friends in America descents from this group, and it kills her that her own friends are afraid to use the name she identifies with for her culture), It doesn’t matter in the US that in other parts of the world, refusing can be seen as denying someone of their cultural identity. Since I’m from the US, where we are a step away from calling it “the g-word,” I won’t use it unless quoting or in context of a post discussing the world, regardless of my thoughts, and regardless of having my butt sitting in a country where it’s not a bad word. The words my country allows are offensive to a lot of gypsies here, but there’s nothing I can do about that. So, because of where I’m from, I will be stripping people of their cultural identity until my personal society can start looking at context. To make my personal society happy means hurting others. Making those others happy means pissing off my society and expulsion. It’s a no-win situation since context, in my society, is ignored.
An example of a word used in other places that is offensive in America is calling a person with something like autism, a person like my daughter, retarded. In the US, it’s become pejorative, but in other places, it still means to be slow or delayed or otherwise have challenges, and that’s correct. In those places, it hasn’t seen widespread use as an insult. I’m not going to be bothered if a French person and I are talking about my daughter, and she is referred to as retarded, but if I’m talking with an American and the same happens, you better get the hell out of my presence before I punch your face. In the US, the word “cunt” is seen as one of the most offensive words there is, yet in other parts of the world, like Britain and Australia, if you call someone a “funny cunt,” it’s positive. But you won’t see me calling people “retarded” or “cunts” just because they’re okay outside of my culture.
In the US, frogs aren’t a big deal, and kids play leapfrog and can be compared to frogs jumping around, but it’s also a word that has been used in parts of Europe as an offensive slang for French people. “Coconut” has been used as a slang in some places against people of Polynesian descent. Some people were offended by the coconuts in the movie Moana (called Vaiana here in Europe) because of this, even though it meant the actual fruit. Within the US, calling someone a Brownie can refer to the Girl Scout level of be used as a racial slur against people of Hispanic, Indian (from India), or Arabian descent, because of their brown skin, and some Native Americans consider Indian to be offensive, others don’t, and others do or don’t depending on context. Context matters, as well as where someone is from. So I will use those words in the ways acceptable where I’m from, just as people where I’m from need to accept others doing with how words are used in their cultures.
There are many other words like this, and I’m not going to get into all of them. But can you imagine reading a word that is deeply offensive against your culture that isn’t in other places, and having to just deal with it and understand that it’s not the same everywhere? We (this means my fellow Americans) aren’t going to nix talking about frogs and coconuts, yet expect the rest of the world, and even our own country, to not use words we don’t like, or in ways we don’t? So don’t call people cunts, don’t call female humans girls, etc? (No, those aren’t on the same level anywhere in the US, but offensive is still offensive.)
We all need to keep in mind that what is okay or bad where we’re from and in our own infinitesimally small slice of the world is not representative of the world as a whole, and our slice may be very different than someone else’s slice, and we can only try to accommodate so many slices before there are no words at all we can use. There are many, many, many cultures with many more different histories, even within the same country, which is a great thing, but it also means that word-uses are often specific to where each person is, and it’s conceit to expect the rest of the world to change to match our own slices. We can all only do the best we can, and we all should be paying more mind to how other people aren’t going to share our spheres, and that doesn’t make them wrong and us right. The best we can do is be mindful of our own choices while also looking at the context of what others are saying while remembering that where they are from might have different word-rules.
I’m going to use “girl” and “boy” and “lady” and “guy” and “woman” and “man” in the acceptable ways for where I’m from, and I use them as gender, not as sex. I’m going to still talk about frogs and coconuts and still call my daughter a Brownie for the rest of the short time that she is one, and do on, but I also don’t ignore that someone referring to an autistic kid as retarded or to a woman as a cunt may just be socially acceptable and not at all offensive where the speaker is, and so I will accept their words without being offended. How we Americans feel about that four-letter c-word is how some feel about our seven-letter c-word. It’s sooooo not a big deal to us, yet is to others, and what is sooooo not a big deal to others is to us.
So remember you aren’t the entire world, I’m not the entire world, and that context of how speech is used needs to be the determining factor over individual words and phrases. So, while I will absolutely modify my speech to the best of my ability when I travel (I can’t know all things offensive in all cultures), when I am writing, whether online or in a book, somethings that can go to more places than I can physically be, I will use words the way my culture allows, and not use words in ways my own culture doesn’t, and will respect that others do the same, instead of being ready to be offended in an instant.