I hate being called “young lady”. It’s the worst thing in the world. It’s the meaning of the word that’s the problem. It usually means I’m in trouble. I’ve either said a “bad word”, haven’t cleaned my room, decided to debate someone I shouldn’t be debating, or I’ve done something that wasn’t acceptable. (Let’s just say that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and church do not mix.) If you forget, be prepared to hear the words “young lady” and listen to a lecture from your mother telling you how immature you are being.
Now I understand that I should be feeling guilty for laughing during a speech and completely ignoring someone – or as I would rather call it-getting my priorities straight. (He was talking to ‘his students’ the boys at my brother’s school after all- If it was meant for me I would’ve paid attention. But enough of that I’m getting off track) Maybe I should be thanking everyone who glared at me during that service- even when I’m in trouble I’m thinking! Why the words “young lady”? What is it about being “young” followed by the word “lady” that makes it sound like a death sentence? It’s like when people use the word ma’am, do we have to be reduced to a word? Do we not all have names after all?
I think it’s the notion of being reminded that there is a distinct separation between childhood and adulthood. Adulthood is the space of power, while the youth and child group are very much dependent on adults for their survival. While people are often nostalgic about their childhoods, they forget that children are really not considered citizens in the society. (They don’t vote and they don’t pay taxes. In Canada before the age of twelve, if they commit a crime they can’t even be charged for it- the responsibility falls on the parents to control their child.) The classic idea of subordination/domination has depended on terms used to remind others of their place in society. In slavery this was rampant: “Black men have a long history of being stereotyped as boys, of being called boys. Even those whites who have stressed positive features of boyhood-simplicity, innocence= usually do so condescendingly…Nineteenth and early-twentieth-century social thinkers tended to see some races as more advanced than others, often categorizing blacks… as infantile.” (Clark, 100) In the slave narrative of Harriet Jacobs, she is asked by her owner to “think what is offered…- a home and freedom! Let the past be forgotten. If I have been harsh with you at times, your wilfulness drove me to it. You know I exact obedience from my own children, and I consider you as yet a child.” (Jacobs, 214) In this case, the slaveholder is not using the word ‘child’ in the modern sense, but reminding her that she is subordinate. The slaveholder felt that Harriet portrayed the ideas of childhood at the time- ignorant, innocent, needing ‘protection’ and someone to ‘take care of her’. It has also been noted that “Those of us who are white and middle class continue to use associations with immaturity to disparage or otherwise fail to acknowledge childhood in its own right.” (Clark, 14) It is used as a way to make people seem different or “other”. Jacobs’ age was irrelevant. “In the course of the seventeenth century a change took place by which the old usage was maintained in the more dependent classes of society… The idea of childhood was bound up with the idea of dependence: the words ‘sons’, ‘varlets’ and ‘boys’ were also words in the vocabulary of feudal subordination. One could leave childhood only by leaving the state of dependence, or at least the lower degrees of dependence. That is why the words associated with childhood would endure to indicate in a familiar style, in the spoken language, men of humble rank whose submission to others remained absolute: lackeys, for instance, journeymen and soldiers. A ‘little boy’ (petit garçon) was not necessarily a child but a young servant, just as today an employer or a foreman will say of a worker of twenty to twenty-five: ‘He’s a good lad.’ Thus in 1549, one Baduel, the principal of a college, an educational establishment, wrote to the father of one of his young pupils about his outfit and attendants: ‘A little boy is all that he will need for his personal service.’” (Aries, 26-27) Those of lower class were made to be subordinate through the designation of ‘child’ and its synonyms. (‘lad’, ‘boy’,’son’)- and let’s not forget the female counterparts to the words: (‘lady’, ‘girl’,)
I still think we see this in today’s society. My parents call me their “little girl”, and every time I go to my grandmother’s cottage there’s always one remark about “how big you’ve gotten!” despite the fact that I’m 5″1 and haven’t grown in three years. They’re said in affectionate tones. The child as an innocent being, a figure, an icon- it’s still used as a reminder that the child has no power, but in this case- it’s positive. They don’t need to worry about the stresses of life, they are ignorant and innocent. (This is the general idea behind the “cult of the child”- worshipping children… I really should explain it in a post- get ready to have a post devoted entirely to the Cult of the Child sometime soon.)
The terms child/adult to signify people were rather slippery in the middle ages. There was no word for in between- (teenagers). The word “youth” could be used for a wide span of ages. “Since youth signifies the prime of life, there is no room for adolescence. Until the eighteenth century, adolescence was confused with childhood. In school Latin the word puer and the word adolescens were used indiscriminately…There were no terms in French to distinguish between pueri and adolescentes. There was virtually only one word in use: enfant. At the end of the Middle Ages, the meaning of this word…could be applied to both the putto… and the adolescent, the big lad who was sometimes also a bad lad. The word enfant (‘child’) in the Miracles de Notre Dame was used in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as a synonym of other words such as valets, valeton, garçon, fils (‘valet’, ‘varlet’, ‘lad’, ‘son’): ‘he was a valeton’ would be translated today as ‘he was a good looking lad’; but the same word could be used of both a young man (‘a handsome valeton’) and a child (‘he was a valeton, so they loved him dearly…’). Only one word has kept this very ancient ambiguity down to our times, and that is the word gars (‘lad’), which has passed straight from Old French into the popular modern idiom in which it is preserved. A strange child, this bad lad who was ‘so perverse and wicked that he would not learn a trade or behave as was fitting in childhood…he kept company with greedy, idle folk who often started brawls in taverns and brothels…’The same is true in the seventeenth century. The report of an episcopal inquiry of 1667 states that in one parish ‘there is un jeune enfans [‘a young child’] aged about fourteen who…has been living in the aforementioned place…’ (Aries, 26-28) The word ‘lad’ has had negative connotations for a long time. It does not describe the age so much any more, but the behaviour of the person it is referred to; as defiant or against the norms of society.
So, my question is: with the usage of the words ‘girl/ child’ as a term of endearment, or a term of reminding people of their place in society; when does one “grow up”? When they have a job? When they can take care of themselves? When the law says they are no longer minors? Or maybe the usage of ‘little/young’ ‘girl/boy/lady/lad’ is always going to be used. It has a very broad usage- from childhood well into adulthood. However the age is not necessary- the terms are used in power relations- age is not a factor in deciding if someone is a young person- their place in their family and their environment is.
- Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962. Print.
- Clark, Beverly Lyon. Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2005. Print.
- Douglass, Frederick, and Harriet A. Jacobs. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Print.
- JennPower. “Broken Telephone.” Web log post. It’s All Kid’s Stuff. WordPress, 29 March. 2013. Web. 1 June. 2013.
- krisbrake. “Don’t Call me Ma’am” Web log post. Kristen Hansen Brakeman. WordPress, 10 April. 2013. Web. 1 June. 2013.