Fun Etymology Tuesday – Girl

Guten Abend boys and girls!

Did you know that as far as the beginning of the 20th century, the colours usually associated with boys and girls were reversed? That’s right, pink was considered to be the more “masculine” colour, since it was closer to red, while blue was the colour of girls, since it was perceived as soft and friendly. How times change, am I right?

Speaking of changing gender associations, today’s Fun Etymology is “girl”!

Back in the 13th century, when we find the first attestations of the word gyrle, it simply meant “young person”, with no distinction of sex. Only by the late 14th century did its meaning specialise as “female child”, then it extended to refer to any young woman in the 15th century. It finally became an affectionate way to refer to grown women around 1640.

The origins of this word before the 13th century are shrouded in mystery, and numerous etymologies have been proposed. Once, it was thought to be ultimately traceable to Latin garrulus, meaning “talkative”, but this hypothesis has been since discarded. Some think it might be derived from Old English gierela, meaning “clothing, garment”, in reference to the special clothes children wore in the middle ages which distinguished them from toddlers, who usually went naked. Other propose an unattested Old English word *gyrele, meaning “young person”, justifying this reconstruction from the existence of words such as Low German gære, or Norwegian/Swedish dialectal gorre/gurre, all meaning “young child”, from Proto-Indo-European *ghwrgh-.
Liberman (2008) proposes that the word is not ultimately traceable back to Proto-Indo-European, but that it was invented out of whole cloth at some point, probably because it sounded funny, and that the final -l might, in fact, be a diminutive (as in Austrian German würstl).

Quite the etymological quagmire for such a commonplace word!

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