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shameless pleading






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.

25 comments to Gal

  • Graham Chambers

    The term “girl” for a young female may have come into use in the 14th century, but Shakespeare was still using it to mean a young person of either sex in the 16th century.

  • Donna Holumzer

    I have just been told by two black female co-workers that the term”gal” means female horse. So when older white men call them gal they are calling them a horse. It is a negative word for black women when white males call them that. All this is new to me.

    • Camille

      @ Donna Holumzer, I think your female co-workers need to check where they are getting their information from. A female horse is a filly or a mare, depending on age. Female horses have NEVER been called anything else at any time in history. A castrated male horse is called a gelding (as opposed to a stallion). They are never referred to as gels. Your co-workers are very much mistaken to feel they are being called “horses” by older white men. There are enough problems with true racists in this country. No need to find offense where there is none.

  • Devia

    uh – black slavery = GAL
    men – got boy and son – to strip them of adulthood and dignity of family bonds – it removed their status as “productive adults”
    women had to have an equivalent and gal became the word of choice – and as far as I am led to understand had some relation or bearing to livestock …

    It is not only negative but derogatory and insulting and the horse reference is ringing bells for me – I found my version of it in historical slavery archives … so it IS out there if this “word detective” bothered to go LOOK around – My VERY british family never uses the word however my sold into slavery and got out side uses it LOTS so – YOU figure it out …

  • Terry

    Gal means woman. It can be prefaced with young or old, or any descriptive pronoun. There is no racial slur attached. I prefer it rather than call everyone Guy – which is a man’s name, specifically Guy Faulks, who was hanged by James I of England.

  • Linda

    A colleague referred to women generally as gals during a presentation. An African-american lady politely approached him afterward and advised him of the negative connotation of the word “gal” from the days of slavery. While I am sure he will not use the term in the future and had no idea that the term was ever pejorative the encounter left me puzzled. My family are all immigrants who arrived in the US after the civil war. Naturally, I have learned that there are some words that are currently considered racist or show a lack of sensitivity and do not use them. I also know that there are words that have had other popular meanings in the distant and near past that are unused now. Gal is one of them. To bring up a 150+ year-old meaning of a common word that has had so many other meanings since then and to be insulted by it is a troubling sensitivity. People cannot be held to that standard of “political correctness” and expect to have any communication at all. Any word, if used sarcastically, or disrespectfully can offend. We need to concentrate more on context and currency and let the past remain the past.

  • R. Williams

    I have been frustrated to no end by two coworkers who insist that the use of the word “gal” is pejorative and should never ever ever be used. I do not like referring to our young adult female students at the college “girls” as it seems diminutive, and condescending. I’ve spent half my life in the south, and “gal” is frequently used as a kindly female equivalent to “guy” (as girls are to boys), and frankly context is relevant. Just as there is nothing wrong with the word “boys”, calling an adult male “boy” is bound to end in offense… thus context is relevant. Being told that the world “gal” can only be judged by its period of use during black oppression is rather frustrating to me, as unlike other more provocative words, its status as good or bad seems highly variable.

  • I would have found it interesting to know where in the US the Word Detective and the above commenters are from. I travel a lot. I have lived above the Mason-Dixon line and below it.
    I have spent a lot of time mixing with “horse-people” from Cowpokes to Olympic English Jumpers and Marathon Driving, around those from grassroot backgrounds to the very affluent. Gals is alive and well.
    As a feminist I have always embraced it as these folks use it. (Excuse my homey regionalism…) It’s nice not to have to bend to the formality of men and women, while appreciating that no one over 11 wants to be called a boy or girl (and why.)
    Gal is the female version of guy. Plain and simple. As a woman I don’t always want to be lumped in with the guys, or left out because I’m not one of the guys. Out West the words “Guys and Gals” is often used to inclusively address a group of mixed sexes and ethnic background is left out.
    Now, calling a woman a “female” really ticks me off when the word man or guy would be used for th

  • Jamie

    The word gal is as derogatory as the n word. You don’t call an African American man boy and you don’t call an African American woman gal. If you are not African American you do not get to decide whether I should or should not be offended by the term.

    • Elaine

      You can be offended all you want. That is your prerogative, but it does not mean that someone was being offensive by using the term “gal” to describe someone of the female sex. It would be gracious of you to understand that not everyone is trying to put others down.

    • Seth

      I am in my early 20’s and an BLACK!!!! Let me say, it is your reverse racism that keeps our country in the 1960s. We self identify as BLACK now, when was the last time you heard a white person say “i am a irish/italian/ french american?” “GAL?” C’mon. If a white person wants to offend you, they know all the right words to use. This is not one of them. I wouldn’t let a white person address me as boy!!!! That does not make the word “boy” racist. Gal is not a racist word on its own, and comments like yours ensure that we will have racism in the future.

      I am a recent transplant from ATL to Boston.There are not many black people here (that are American born and not Dominican immigrants)

      I have found very quickly that saying maam is considered offensive to any woman who is insecure about their age.I asked my my boss, who is female, and she explained that since women up here dont hear it every day, it makes them feel old. My boss, who says their insecurities does not make “maam” politically incorrect. She actually has told me to feel free to continue to call her maam. She says she views it as a part of my culture, and to ask someone to change their culture is more than just politically incorrect.

  • C.B. Smith

    In Alice Walker’s novel ‘The Color Purple’ Corrine, a missionary in the beginning was called Gal by a store clerk. (it’s also in the movie) on her death bed in the book, she remarked about how she was treated like ‘an ordinary nigger’ by that store clerk. maybe there is some racial history there. maybe the song ‘ragtime gal’ is racial. hard to say. there seems to be some correlation.

  • Zas

    see so much people talking bullshit here i’m a Jamaican and we ones start that in our patois of English because we love our language to sound more rough and it is referring to females old or young and not calling a man gal as i see above but it can be use as good and bad you have to be friends with a girl to be able to call her gal in a friendly way eg patois “gal long time no see yu yuh Good” so many Jamaicans around world UK Canada and U.S especially in big cities of new York Bronx Atlanta Philadelphia California so weird most people hear it in our music from way back and never ever use to say but now Americans just keep learning all and claiming that came from south or where ever

  • Phoenix

    After reading all of the comments, interpretations, descriptions, and various definitions of the word “gal” here, it is fascinating to see the time warp that applies to this word. Whether born below the Mason-Dixon line or not, anyone who has bothered to learn about the history of Black slavery in the United States is relatively clear on the derogatory origin and implications of the word “gal” as it relates to Black females. Do your homework and research the history. That’s all that needs to be said.

  • DeWight

    “Welcome Everyone

    I’d like to thank you guys and “every one else” for attending today…”

    Yeah, that’ll work.

  • Penny

    I was recently widowed. My husbands initials are “XYZ” (an example of course). In CA you can buy personalized ‘legacy plates” which look like, and are colored the same as, the California 1960 plates (the year we were married). Not only did I want an easy to remember plate, but I wanted to memorialize my husband. I ordered plates which say( XYZ’s GAL). I’m from a Western State with no slavery history and little racial bias. To me it’s always been “guys and gals” i.e. boys and girls. I’ll never forget “XYZ” nor forget the plate that says ‘m his ‘gal’ forever.

  • Louise

    As far as the word girl or gal it really bother me the way it come out of some people mouth and I don’t care to be called either one because it is not used the right way around me.

  • Connie

    Platinum rule: Treat people the way THEY want to be treated. In Black American history the term gal has negative associations. May not be intended when used, but note that it could have an unintended consequence.

  • Bob

    I wonder if the word “gal” could have some origin from “Galatea”. The work of the ancient sculptor Pygmalion, who so loved his sculpture of a beautiful woman that it came to life.

    Not all words have to come from negative origins

  • Deb C

    “Gel” is used in an old folk tune, “Bound for the Rio Grande,” prompting me to wonder if the word was short for gelding. Could this be?

  • Erik

    I saw this on LinkedIn today so decided to do some research and found this out. I have never heard of the “Gal” as a negative term. I say “guys and gals” all the time, and have never had anyone say anything nor have I ever heard of this.
    I guess I won’t use it any more, but it seems to me that it is the intent of how you use a word. Saying guys and gals, isn’t derogatory, it’s not like someone is welcoming you with a some racial epitaph when they want to be a little less ‘formal’ by saying “guys and gals” v. “ladies and gentlemen”. Sometimes the “cancel culture” goes a little too far. Because I am sensitive to it, I will stop using it out of respect, but I don’t see it as derogatory in everyday speech.

  • Velma F. Stewart

    I’m writing a novel and simply asked when the word gal became commonly used. I wanted a less formal word than lady or woman. I had no idea it was ever used as a demoralizing or negative term. Like one of the later responses above, I’ll be very careful of using the word and will definitely not use it referring to anyone of the African American race. I’m sorry some have been hurt by the term that many think of only as the counterpart to guy.

  • Paul A. Carling

    I accept the origin of the word Gal as given above. Note also that in Cumbria in the 17th C ponies were often affectionately called ‘Gals’ which was short for Galloway, which is an extinct breed of pack horse originating from Galloway – favoured for its hardiness. As most of these ponies were female, the drovers may have seen this usage as a play on words.

  • Eve

    People of all ethnicities are good at using a word or symbol that means one thing to one group and assigning another interpretation to it. An example is the ‘swastika’. I live in Utah and have seen this symbol in pictographs and petroglyphs from prehistoric people who definitely didn’t get it from Europe. It has been woven into Navajo blankets way before whites came west. It was a positive symbol. It has been a sacred symbol of many European and Asian cultures as well, until it was hijacked by the NAZI’S in the 1930.
    Where I an going with this is that this world is big enough to have local or regional connotations assigned to a word that others outside of that place have no idea about. It’s called slang.
    Gal was a term used as a ‘hip’ way to refer to young women in my childhood. In my area, it had absolutely no connotations of race or animals attached. It has been interesting to me to hear other’s experiences. If anyone called me a ‘Gal’ (I’m now near retirement age), I would wonder if they stepped out of the 50’s and where they’d been the last 60 years. It’s not a term in current use here.

  • John Keeran

    I’ve given presentations to general audiences often, and at one session with professional women (note the long 6 syllables of the two words), I asked how they would like to be addressed in a more casual way – women, gals, something else? After a discussion amongst themselves (about 20 of them), their joint decision was to be called ‘guys’. (!!) Go figure. From then on, I have referred to people in the audience as ‘folks’. I’m sure that will raise the hackles on someone’s back for some obscure reason, but it has seemed acceptable in my presentations with no one complaining to me (so far).

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