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There is nothing like a dame. Lady? Woman?

Chick. Woman. Lady. Gal. Kitten. Doll. It seems like there are over a hundred names for the opposite of the male sex! I call my mom a woman and my sister a girl. Both are over the age of 25. Why is it so difficult to decide what to call women? I mean girls. I mean …females?

Whether to say girl or woman could depend on who is using the term, says University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan.  

While doing another informal poll, Curzan talked to some of her female students in the term-confusing age range of 18 to 22 about whether they want to be called a girl or a woman. One student said, “No, no. I want to be called a girl, not a woman, because girls get dates, women don’t.”


But this way of thinking isn’t unusual, says Curzan.

“It was this way that ‘woman,’ for her, at least, and for other students I’ve talked to,  had a connotation of independence, maybe feminism, that they didn’t feel ready for yet,” she says.

And when you think about it, it is quite prevalent. In high school sports, we call the female team “girl’s teams,” Curzan explains, but in college they are called “women’s team.”

This is a befuddling problem that men don’t seem to have, and Curzan knows why.

“It is a problem in the language for what to do in this transitional age that men don’t have to deal with because men have the very useful word ‘guy’,” Curzan says. And "guy" can mean any male from 15 to 40 or 50, it's just that easy.

But females have "woman" and "girl" and then "lady," which gets really tricky says Curzan.

“This was the polite term for a long time," explains Curzan. "In the 19th century, lady was seen as the polite term and woman was seen as the rude term.”

In fact, a book called Little Sunshine went so far as to say, “No woman is a lady who is not a good wife.”

Ouch again.

Others would say, “That woman is not a lady, she’s a bad woman.”

But many of us  today don’t think of lady as a derogatory term. In fact if you are in a group of females and Rina Miller walks by, she will likely say, "Hey ladies, how are you?"

But Curzan says there is a reason some people can get away with saying lady while others can't, mainly because of "in group, out group."

"It’s one thing for us as women to refer to our women friends as ‘hey ladies.’ I think it can, not always but it can be read differently if men refer to women as ladies.”

Tricky territory, but if you want to be professional about it, the AP Stylebook says to not use the word lady for woman except in titles.

But I think just to clear everything up, you can call me a broad. Or better yet, a dame! 

– Cheyna Roth, Michigan Radio Newsroom 

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.