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I have a classmate and sometimes she says something like "I told my girlfriend that she has to blah blah".

Does this wording imply a lesbian relationship, or is she referring to a her best friend (a girl) only?

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    No. She's probably just her best friend. – Mick Oct 25 '16 at 0:47
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    The gender stigma attaches more to men than women, traditionally. A guy can never refer to a friend as his "boyfriend" but women innocuously call their (non-sexual) friends "girlfriends" all the time. – Robusto Oct 25 '16 at 1:14
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    I think we should leave this open because it is clearly a question about the English language and there's enough context for someone to write a reasonable answer. – snailboat Oct 25 '16 at 2:30
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    @Mari-LouA The question "is this particular person actually a lesbian" is, of course, off topic for ELL. However "what should be inferred regarding romantic attachment when one woman refers to another as 'girlfriend'" is on topic - it's firmly in the "What do these crazy English speakers mean when they use words?" bailiwick. - It's also not something that you'll necessarily get from a dictionary. Yes, it clinically lists the two meanings, but doesn't give any context on how prevalent each is, or what the default assumption a native speaker would have when hearing it used. – R.M. Oct 25 '16 at 14:53
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    @Mari-LouA Plenty of teens know whether they identify as gay, straight or bisexual. Plenty of teens don't go around making out in public. And plenty of teens would not have a problem mentioning their significant other without having had a whole background of relationship talk first. Your opinion is a bit old-fashioned and heterocentric. But we're all here to learn! Happy to chat about it if you like. – thumbtackthief Oct 25 '16 at 18:18
51

It's true that girls often call their close female friend(s) girlfriend(s), at least in the US. And although I am inclined to believe that the friend is likely a platonic female friend, it is still ambiguous.

girlfriend
1. A female companion or friend with whom one has a sexual or romantic relationship.
2. A female friend.

If you really care to know, you should ask her for clarification.

  • 20
    It is ambiguous, and absolutely incorrect to assume anything. Lesbians call their partners "girlfriend", or "partner", or other expressions depending on who they are talking to, and possibly where they are. In the United States, unfortunately, there are places where someone might feel uncomfortable talking openly about a homosexual relationship and instead might use a gender-neutral expression. The correct answer is you can't know, but if it's any of your business, you can ask. – Andrew Oct 25 '16 at 1:08
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    It obviously varies with region, but I'd be prepared to generalise that even in this enlightened day and age, it is far more likely that a girl talking about her girlfriend openly and in a casual situation (classroom with mere acquaintences) that this means her best friend, not her partner. While it is pedantically true that it is ambiguous, the balance of probability in the situation as described is "friend". – GreenAsJade Oct 25 '16 at 4:04
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    As a European, I can tell you that straight European girls also use girlfriend on occasion to talk about close female friends. But yeah, it is really confusing :( – walen Oct 25 '16 at 8:01
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    @GreenAsJade: That's true just because of the numbers. – gnasher729 Oct 25 '16 at 13:47
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    @Andrew: In my experience, it's almost always clear either way, from the context and from the people involved. This is not likely to be something that AI gets right for many years, but we're not AI :) – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 25 '16 at 20:43
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It depends where in the world you are.

Everywhere, as far as I know, one meaning of "girlfriend" is "a woman you're having a romantic and/or sexual relationship with but aren't married to." In the US, it's very common for women to describe close female friends as "girlfriends", even when there is no romantic or sexual involvement. In the UK, the friend-who-is-a-woman meaning is much less common than in the US and would be seen as something of an Americanism.

Having said that, the proportion of women in the UK who use "girlfriend" to mean any close female friend could easily be higher than the proportion of lesbian and bisexual women. If that's the case then a woman saying "my girlfriend" in the UK would still be more likely to mean "my close female friend" than "my romantic/sexual partner".

  • my subjective impression of the UK usage is that the “platonic” sense was more common in the past — i.e. mid 20th-century — so may be seen as old-fashioned as well as, or instead of, Americanised. I’m not on an institutional network at the moment, but for someone who is, it’d be interesting to see what usage examples the OED gives. – PLL Oct 26 '16 at 15:40
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    @PLL The platonic sense turns out to be older (usage examples from 1859-USA, 1896-UK, 1907-USA, 1921-Canada, 1967-not sure, 2005-not sure) than the romantic/sexual sense (1892-UK, 1928-UK, 1945-UK, 1962-not sure, 1987-UK, 2000-USA, 2001-UK). – David Richerby Oct 26 '16 at 16:07
  • In cases where "girlfriend=close female friend" would be old or out-of-date, what would be its new, up-to-date version? Is it common to hear a girl or woman mention "my close female friend" rather than simply "girlfriend"? – user2338816 Oct 26 '16 at 18:23
  • @user2338816 Saying "my close female friend" in conversation would sound kinda robotic. Probably just "my friend", since the fact that she's "close" and "female" are likely to be either obvious from context or not very relevant. – David Richerby Oct 26 '16 at 18:58
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The other answers have done a great job, and I fully agree. If a girl refers to another girl as a "girlfriend" it could mean either way but it's very common to refer to just a female friend.

I wanted to add some additional information to say that this (for whatever reason) is very specific to one girl referring to another. If a girl said "boyfriend" most people would would assume that means a romantic relationship, and it would sound weird otherwise. I have heard "guy-friend" to refer to platonic male friends, but I'm not sure how common this is. (It might be regional)

Similarly, if I (a male) were to refer to someone as a "(girl|boy) friend" most people would infer that I mean a romantic partner. I probably would too.

I would never refer to a platonic friend as a "(girl|boy) friend", and it would sound very strange to hear someone doing so.

  • 2
    As for females referring to platonic male friends as "guy-friends", I hear that not uncommonly in the Southeast United States. Depending on where you are that may or may not shed some light on if it's just regional/national. – SnoringFrog Oct 25 '16 at 21:41
  • @SoringFrog: interesting. here in the midwest, I do not recall ever hearing the phrase "guy-friend". then again I'm a guy of a certain age; let's say it was never heard in the 80s – mobileink Oct 25 '16 at 21:54
  • @SnoringFrog: and fwiw in the 80s a woman referring to a "guy friend" would probably have been taken to be referring to a gay friend. things change! – mobileink Oct 25 '16 at 21:58
  • Your answer is all about what terms are used by girls. Are we to infer that you think women use different terms? – P. E. Dant Oct 25 '16 at 23:12
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    @P.E.Dant I don't know whether the answerer thinks that men and women use terminology differently, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's part of the assumption. I know women who refer to female friends with no romantic connection as "girlfriends", but I don't (as far as I know) know of any men using "girlfriend" to refer to a non-romantic, female friend. Whatever issue one may or may not take with that, I think it's a good thing to be aware of differences in usage. – Joshua Taylor Oct 26 '16 at 15:19
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Unlike boys, girls very often call their close female friends girlfriends.

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    We used to have a Welsh guy working in the office, who had spent about 15 years teaching in Bermuda before coming back to the UK. He called all women (and men) "man". It was quite common to hear him start a phone call (in a Welsh accent) with something like "Hey, Susan man, can I speak to Brenda man?" His nickname, unsurprisingly was also Man, so he was often addressed as "Hey, Man man, ...." – alephzero Oct 25 '16 at 4:51
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    While this is true in the US, in the UK not normal to refer to a close female friend as a "girlfriend" – Stormcloud Oct 25 '16 at 13:47
  • @QPaysTaxes Hilarious, although to be fair, the translation of this answer to male would be whether you call your female friends "girlfriends" or not :) – Pierre Arlaud Oct 25 '16 at 14:19
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    @PierreArlaud ...which might get him, unrelatedly, punched a lot just as well :-) – The Vee Oct 25 '16 at 15:21
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Even as a native speaker (a gay one, at that) this can be ambiguous. In my experience, using "girlfriend" to refer to friends is something that older women do and probably not the under-thirty set that is more used to gay culture. However, I've always lived in liberal, very gay-friendly environments so I wouldn't be shocked if I found that young women in less LGBT-friendly American regions used "girlfriend" as a synonym for "friend". If understanding were crucial to your conversation, I think asking "Is she just a friend or are you two dating?" would be perfectly acceptable.

  • I've heard "girlfriend" used somewhat regularly in the platonic sense in San Francisco (CA), Boston (MA), and even Provincetown (MA) by girls in their teens and twenties. As such, I don't think the "less LGBT-friendly" qualifier is particularly valid, as these are three of the most LGBT-friendly regions. – Doktor J Oct 25 '16 at 18:29
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    Fair enough. I don't consort with teenage girls much these days. – thumbtackthief Oct 25 '16 at 18:31
  • Could you please confirm my gut instinct on this issue. If two people of the same sex are going out with each other, don't they say something like: "I'm going steady", "I have a steady relationship", "I'm seeing someone special", I've met a great guy/girl and we've become close". And there are better ways of saying that you are romantically involved with someone. If I'm open, I'll talk about having a lover, companion, partner, soulmate, significant other, rather than "my girlfriend" the last one is certainly more ambiguous. – Mari-Lou A Oct 25 '16 at 22:35
  • I mean, I can't imagine anyone--straight or gay--using any of those phrases these days. I know plenty of gay women who refer to their partners as girlfriends. I'm not exactly sure what your question is, though. – thumbtackthief Oct 26 '16 at 14:09
  • It would help, I think, if you said where you're from. American, Australian, British, Canadian, ... native speakers might all have different answers. – David Richerby Oct 26 '16 at 16:09
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Often, if the ladies in question are in a romantic relationship then they will refer to each other as their partner (this is true for both genders).

As mentioned, that doesn't also preclude them from referring to each other as girlfriend as well.

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    Re 'partner': ... which makes things confusing if you know someone through a business relationship, and they introduce you to their 'partner' (which is the term I at least use both for a romantic partner, and a business partner and unreasonably expect others to magically intuit the difference). – abligh Oct 26 '16 at 17:30
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    @abligh You're right, partner is used for other purposes as well, e.g. badminton partner, doubles partner. Romantic partners is probably the one where you're most likely to use it unqualified though. (Not that I've done any research on it though) – BanksySan Oct 26 '16 at 18:13

protected by Community Oct 25 '16 at 21:42

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