I just stumbled across the name of the United Nations'

International Day of the Girl Child

To be honest, I have never heard the term "girl child" before, and could not find it in online dictionaries, so it does not seem to be very common.

Is "girl child" used to distinguish between the meanings "female child" and "young (unmarried) woman"?

  • 1
    Since this is an awkward and not-well-defined phrase, I recommend asking the UN what they intended it to mean. Maybe their literature about this day makes it clearer.
    – keshlam
    Oct 12, 2014 at 14:32
  • I have added a link to the wikipedia page. Oct 12, 2014 at 14:34
  • I heard this today on TV: it is incredibly stupid and unclear.
    – Fattie
    Oct 12, 2014 at 15:15
  • 2
    A gynecologist might be a "doctor for women", or a "women's doctor", but I can't think of any situation where "woman doctor" means anything other than a doctor who is a woman.
    – The Photon
    Oct 13, 2014 at 1:13
  • 1
    @ThePhoton I was being slightly sarcastic, and I fully agree if we talk about proper English. But if my English was limited to 850 words, things would be less clear cut. (see answer by JohnDeters for details) Oct 13, 2014 at 4:35

3 Answers 3


The UN needs to keep it as simple as possible for a global audience. They also need to remove all connotations that have become associated with other uses of the word girl, and to clarify the intended meaning.

Many uses of the word "girl" have lost the implications of youth that they once carried. "Daughter" means progeny, and implies a relationship between parent and child, but they want to include concern for children without parents. And "female" is not on the list of 850 Basic English words. (Neither is "international", but as that's the basic charter of the UN, they have no real alternative.)

If it helps, don't think of "girl child" as a phrase, simply consider "child" as a qualifier of "girl".

  • Great answer. I do understand the intention behind it, but I had never seen the phrase used. Both "woman doctor" and "girl child" do not sound like proper English to me. Within a restricted vocabulary that does not contain "female", these phrases are of course acceptable. Oct 12, 2014 at 18:52

I think this may also have to do with linguistics. In many languages, including many of those of West Africa, nouns do not change for plurality or other qualifications, like gender. So a qualifying word such as "girl" is added to qualify or add to the meaning. Remember Mowgli, the "man cub" from The Jungle Book? Black English includes many noun phrases that reflect this linguistic reality, as seen in sentences like: "It only costs five dollar." The expression "girl child" can be heard in both Black English and Southern English, both of which have African roots.

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    Welcome to EL&U! Can you provide references for the points you make in this answer? Anyway, this question has been quite conclusively answered, unless you can find a fault with that, I suggest that you don't create a new answer. Sep 20, 2016 at 20:14

The term 'girl child' is old enough to appear in the chorus of the sea song Home Boys Home which seems to be at least 19th century Irish, at least the oldest recordings are by The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers. The relevant verse is

And if it be a girl child send her out to nurse

With gold in her pocket and with silver in her purse

If it be a boy child he'll wear the jacket blue

And go climbing up the rigging like his daddy used to do.

Notice that the term 'boy child' is also used in the same verse as a contrast. If the child of the casual sexual encounter is a 'girl child' she is to be pampered but the 'boy child' is to be sent to sea like his father.

There is probably an element of fitting the words to the metre in the choice of 'girl child' rather than 'female child' since other songs of a similar age use 'female' (for instance the song Bonny Bunch of Roses includes the line "It was there I spied a female who was in great grief and woe") but I would expect "girl child" and "boy child" to predate "female child" and "male child" and the Gaelic equivalents also to have existed before the Latin words became accepted in normal language.

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