Girlboss to girl math, what women-related neologisms really mean

If you haven’t yet heard of girl math, or girl dinner, you probably aren’t spending enough time on social media. Girlboss, at least? Among the 690 new words added to the Merriam Webster dictionary in September 2023, is girlboss, a term used to describe an ambitious and successful woman (especially a businesswoman or entrepreneur). 

In use since 2014, the term was coined by Sophia Amoruso, the founder of an American fast-fashion retail site whose autobiography #Girlboss was a bestseller. Girlboss has been trending since, with and without the hashtag, especially among Gen Z, who uses it to denote a woman’s winning attitude. 

In 2023, TikToker Samantha Jane broke down her way of spending, explaining her logic in doing so and called it girl math. It went viral and is still trending with women sharing memes and videos of their spends on their timelines, often humorously. Girl math is the logic a woman applies to justifying an expensive or what may be considered a frivolous purchase. 

Many of these social media-driven neologisms are on women, coined by women, and used by women. So are they empowering or reinforcing the gender divide?  

Being girl coded

Anagha Anand, a Class XII student of Rajagiri Public School in Kochi, sees these coinages as a way of reclaiming a very essential part of the self. “When you are a kid, you go through this whole phase where you are ‘not like other girls’. But eventually you realise that you are like other girls, and that is a wonderful thing. It is a whole shared experience to be able to be girl coded together,” she says.

Girl math, Anagha explains, is a way of acknowledging things that have been conventionally labelled “girly”. “It is not a bad thing and it is totally fine to like them (case in point, shopping and love for makeup), and as an idea, it is all about accepting oneself for who one really is and creating a sense of belonging. Self love only.” 

Girl dinner, another recently viral phrase, would seem just like self love, especially for women who have little ‘me time’. Coined by Olivia Maher, an American food and lifestyle content creator, girl dinner means a low-effort, hassle-free, comfort meal that a woman rustles up for herself, without having to worry about its nutritional content or having to feed others in the family. Though it has critics crying foul over the trend promoting unhealthy eating habits, women the world over have been posting pictures of easy, quick, non-cooked dinners with the hashtag.

An evolving wordscape

Aparna Mulberry, an English language educator and a social media influencer (@invertedcoconut on Instagram) sees these women-related terms as empowering. “As an English language teacher, I see these new terms as reflective of the evolving landscape of gender inclusivity and representation. I appreciate the expansion of vocabulary to reflect diverse experiences and perspectives, and these terms offer more inclusive language options.” 

Aparna finds the words affirming as a woman, too. “They celebrate the unique experiences and contributions of women and provide language that reflects and validates the diverse roles and identities of women in society.” However, she adds that it is essential to remain mindful of context and individual preferences. “Ultimately, the goal is to create a language environment that celebrates diversity, promotes equality, and empowers all individuals, regardless of gender.” 

Gendered language

There must be something about women and language, for picked ‘woman’ as the word of the year in 2022. Searches for the word apparently doubled that year compared to previous years. Language has always been deeply gendered. says Kalyani Vallath, who has over 25 years of experience teaching English literature. “It has not only been used to perpetrate patriarchy, but also as social critique. A lot of terms/words are mainstream male words. Lady doctor, female president, for instance.  In the history of feminism and women’s liberation movement, we have seen that a lot of words that men and society used to tarnish women have been used back at them,” says Kalyani, who is also an educational entrepreneur, author and editor.

“Especially in the second wave of feminism, the taboo words of the female body… were used freely. (Eg: The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler’s iconic play that celebrated the vagina). So language has been used back at the patriarchal society to great effect,” Kalyani adds.

Pop culture renaissance

For all their popularity, there is an air of ambiguity around these neologisms, says journalist, poet and author Saritha Varma. “We cannot say with certainty that they are empowering. I see them as expressions of a pop culture renaissance. And pop culture is always ambiguous. It stumbles, runs around, but creates a stir and a shake. Every generation has had its share of these. Take this new term girl math for instance, one could see it as a gender slur. But it depends on the context. If it is a joke on ourselves, it is fun. But if it is coming from a male relative/friend, it becomes a slur.” 

In 21st century post-feminist India, the younger generations don’t want to talk about patriarchy and don’t want to fight men, points out Kalyani. “They would rather call themselves human, not girls or women. In that sense, a lot of words that are actually derogatory are used in a neutral sense. They think feminism has failed or that it has already won. So, they use these terms without the power edge. I see it as a good trend, too, in the sense that both men and women are already occupying a neutral gender space. There is a return to humanism and we are breaking free from the shackles of age old conventions. We are looking at a freer, more democratic world,” she adds. 

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