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My usual understanding is that someone's girlfriend is their (female) partner in an exclusive romantic relationship. Same for boyfriend.

Is this correct, or are there instances where girlfriend refers to just a "normal" friend that also happens to be female?

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Jury is still out on that one. Wiki: "A girlfriend is a female partner one is romantically and/or sexually involved with. It can also refer to a female friend. This term is often used loosely, and there is some debate over what exactly constitutes a girlfriend." –  Kris Feb 4 '13 at 6:41
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if you separate the words "girl friend" however, it clearly indicates platonic friendship between two women. "boy friend" is, however, almost never used. –  Thomas Feb 4 '13 at 14:25
    
one of the rare times I prefer a language with grammatical genders - in Spanish - novia = female significant other, amiga = female friend, while novio = male significant other, amigo = male friend –  jberger Feb 27 at 19:39

4 Answers 4

up vote 27 down vote accepted

This is dependent on culture and context, but generally in North America, you do sometimes hear women referring to their platonic women friends as their girlfriends. You never hear men refer to their platonic male friends as boyfriends, however.

So girlfriend is a little broader than boyfriend, which does always refer to a romantic male companion.

(Whether the arrangement is exclusive really depends on a lot of other factors, however.)

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Also, it is rare for girlfriend to be used to mean a female who is a platonic friend of a male. –  John Y Feb 4 '13 at 4:03
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I've heard the term guy-friend used to refer to a platonic male friend. –  Tanner Swett Jan 11 at 14:07

It depends on the gender and sexual orientation of the speaker.

A heterosexual woman might use "girlfriend" to refer to a close heterosexual female friend without meaning to imply any sort of romantic involvement. This usage tends to be confusing if the listeners are uncertain of the speaker's sexual orientation.

A heterosexual man or a lesbian would use "girlfriend" to mean a woman with whom s/he is romantically involved. It doesn't necessarily follow that the relationship is exclusive.

Certain gay men use "girlfriend" to refer to any of their close gay friends with whom they are not romantically involved. By contrast, the term for a romantic partner is "boyfriend." Again, it does not follow that the relationship is exclusive.

I suppose a lesbian might hypothetically use "boyfriend" to refer ironically to a straight or gay male with whom she has an affectionate but platonic relationship; however, I haven't actually heard any instances of this.

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+1 for the expansion and ironic play with these terms in the queer community. I actually have heard a lesbian refer to a platonic male friend ironically as her "boyfriend" (also, at times, her "wife"). –  JAM Feb 4 '13 at 15:59
    
I think "girlfriend" means exclusive! –  BlueWhale Feb 4 '13 at 18:07

Is this correct, or are there instances where girlfriend refers to just a "normal" friend that also happens to be female?

In addition to what other answers have said - my experience has been this depends a fair bit by age.

People who are younger do not use this as often in this context (probably because people who are young have a much higher chance of having a non-marriage relationship). But women who are older tend to be much more likely to use "girlfriend" in reference to female friends.

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The simple answer to your question is that in most places; yes.

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