In the beginning, on my ABOUT page, I set you the challenge of thinking about the many ways in which you understand words.
The word that I had thought of was girl. What do you think of when you hear/read this word?
Take a moment and, before reading further, mind map this word for yourself.
My mind is littered with a jumble of definitions, of words, of associations. I can visualise my own mind map with all the ways in which I understand this word. But where do I start?
At this initial stage of thinking, you can see I am interested in the word itself and only just beginning to consider the meaning of the word. But that is the next stage?
The dictionary suggests that a girl is defined as:
: a female child
: a young woman
: a usually young woman from a specified kind of place
Full Definition of GIRL
a : a female child from birth to adulthood
b : daughter
c : a young unmarried woman
d sometimes offensive : a single or married woman of any age
a : sweetheart
b sometimes offensive : a female servant or employee
Examples of GIRL
Is this your little girl?
a group of teenage girls
His parents hope he’ll soon find a nice girl, settle down, and get married.
Wait till the girls back home hear about this!
Our boss thinks of herself as just one of the girls.
She went out dancing with the girls.
They just hired a new girl to do the filing.
Although in some ways, my understanding of the word girl coincides with that of the dictionary, a definition on its own is not enough. Words have meanings to us which go beyond the remit of a dictionary. Language is a living entity and we use it in a way that suits us socially according to our age, experience and friendship groups. We use language professionally and even geographically.
Words are less about the actual definitions and more about the meanings that we attach to them. For each word we use, we carry a map in our heads that contains all the information and meanings that we have for a particular word.
In British, and I am sure other Western societies, the term girl is also used in other ways that do not coincide with my initial thoughts. The term girl can used in seemingly inappropriate ways; in the examples of usage provided by the dictionary, we can see that the term is used in a context of employment – ‘They just hired a girl to do the filing’. Although the employee is possibly (but not always) young, I would question the appropriateness of this usage. Is the 45 year old filing clerk still ‘a girl’? And if so, what does that suggest to the recipient of this sentence? It suggests that there is a disproportionate power relationship between employee and employer. I would like to suggest that it negates the valuable life/work experience of the employee and in turn disempowers her.
The word girl can be an inflammatory term, depending on who is using it. Obviously using it according to the dictionary definition is acceptable. But, are you going to cause offence in other situations? Are you using it in a way that empowers you over those of whom you are speaking?
The word girl is a useful example of a word which can be used as a tool of power and disempowerment in the English language. But there are many others. In mapping our thoughts about a word or phrase, we can gain greater understanding of ways in which definitions are corrupted by meaning, by the meaning that our particular society places on them.
Although we may laugh at the ‘politically correct’ brigade’s call to change the words we use, there is real purpose to their work. We should choose words with care and use them cautiously; words have power over us all and we can be enabled or disabled by the way in which they are applied.
For more information on this subject , this is a useful book to read.