And don’t call me Shirley.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the term “gal” originate, meaning a girl or female, or a female older than early teens? And what age group does it include? Did it always refer to females? — Cliff.

Now there’s a word I haven’t seen in a while. In fact, I was just thinking about it, and I came to the conclusion that I have never actually used the word “gal” in a non-sarcastic or non-jocular sense (that is, as a serious synonym of “girl” or “young woman”). One’s mileage may vary, of course, and the word certainly seems to be alive and well in tabloid-esque news headlines (“Charlie Sheen’s Party Gal Reveals All About 36 Hour Party Binge”), although the apparently eternally seductive rhyme of “gal pal” obviously explains many of them (“George Clooney gal pal Elisabetta Canalis shocked he’s staying single,” Vancouver Sun, 1/24/2011).

My aversion to “gal” is, obviously, generational. I remember my father using it un-selfconsciously, and it was accepted popular slang as of the 1950s and 60s (“Discussing cool and the degrees of coolness, one boy reported: ‘If you like a guy or gal, they’re cool’,” Newsweek, 1950). But by the time I was in college, “gal” applied to a young woman was considered as disrespectful and demeaning as “chick” or “girl.” I guess I absorbed the zeitgeist of my youth pretty thoroughly, because to this day I’m uncomfortable even using the word “girl” for anyone over the age of about twelve. “Gal”? Fuhgeddaboudit. In the 1940s, however, both “gal” and “girl” were applied to women in their twenties, thirties and beyond without, apparently, a second thought (e.g., “His Girl Friday,” a 1940 movie starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and the widespread use in the 1950s of “gal friday” to mean a female assistant).

The fact that the semantic social fortunes of “gal” and “girl” have waxed and waned in concert is not surprising given that the two are, drum roll please, actually the same word. “Gal” first appeared as slang in England in the late 18th century and originated as a Cockney pronunciation of the word “girl.” It was considered, not surprisingly, an abomination by language arbiters of the day (“Improprieties, commonly called Vulgarisms, [include] … Gal for girl,” The Columbian Grammar, 1795). Interestingly, the “lower classes” weren’t the only ones putting their stamp on “girl” at the time. By the mid-19th century the upper crust of London were speaking (and writing) of “gels,” which was simply “girl” with an upper-class (or affectedly upper-class) pronunciation. On the Gilligan’s Island Scale of Social Class Markers, one can easily picture the blustering Skipper blurting “gal” in every third sentence, while zillionaire Thurston Howell III would definitely say “gel” in his Locust Valley Lockjaw (the stereotypical upper-class American style of speaking through clenched teeth, named after the wealthy North Shore of Long Island). As far as I can tell, “gel” never really established a foothold in the US outside of ruling-class redoubts such as Grosse Pointe and Greenwich, but it’s still used today in Britain, often to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “an upper-class or aristocratic young Englishwoman.”

Incidentally, if you’re wondering where “girl” itself came from, you’re in good company. No one knows for sure, although etymologists have several fairly complicated theories. All we know for certain is that “girl” first appeared in the written record in Middle English (as “garl” or “geerl”) meaning simply “a child” of either sex. Use of “girl” to mean specifically “a young woman” dates to the 14th century.

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