Investigating the words women use to describe themselves

This summer, I will conduct research on the English words that people who identify as women use for themselves and what words they find acceptable to use, especially in relation to age. For children, the word ‘girl’, is widely acceptable, but the matter of at what age people should no longer be called ‘girls’ is a tricky one. In my experience, many teenagers and young adults do not want to be referred to as ‘girls’, but they do not necessarily feel as though ‘women’ fits them either. My idiolect of American English, and the dialects of most of my peers do not have a word that specifically describes female adolescents and young adults. The word after ‘girl’ is ‘woman’, or ‘women’, for which I feel too young. Somewhat separate from age distinction is the word ‘lady’, but the word has a negative connotation in some cases. Thus, I have returned to ‘girl’ in recent times.

My goal for this project is to facilitate the discussion around the adolescent woman’s idea of self and how that manifests in the language she uses. I do not wish to propose new words or terms for women, but I want to document what is acceptable or comfortable for them.

For this research, I will create an online survey for women that considers what words they use for themselves and what words they find acceptable to use. The survey will be online to ensure anonymity, but can be shared online through social networks and platforms. Facebook will perhaps be the prime method of survey dissemination as it reaches members of many generations and ages and will not limit me to only people I know. As my focus is on the words women use for themselves and their change over time, my social variables will include the gender and age of participants. The target demographic is people who identify as women, and I aim to survey women of varied ages to investigate whether one’s generation has an effect on the words women use or accept. Some of the linguistic variables that I plan to study are “girl”, “woman”, “lady” and “gal”. I will examine how their use and acceptability changes in interactions with different social settings and groups.