35

Are the terms "girlfriend" or "boyfriend" limited to some age in the spoken English?

I'm asking it because the word "girlfriend" is a closed compound noun which literally (in the narrow meaning of these two components of this closed compound word) means a friend who is a young (girl). The same for "boyfriend" which means a friend who is a young (boy). Now, so far as a non native English speaker I've not noticed using of both after some young age, and if it's used in old age it may be to me a little weird. But my personal impression of it may be wrong since it's not my native language.

By checking in Cambridge dictionary I found that the definition of girlfriend is "a woman or girl who a person is having a romantic or sexual relationship with". From this definition I understand that it is not only for girls but also for women. Isn't it in the colloquial English?

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    There's several questions about these terms on ELU. Check out Is there a more concise term for a long-term girlfriend/boyfriend than “significant other”? and its linked questions. – Andrew Grimm Feb 23 '18 at 7:43
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    Side note: in Quebec, GF/BF is often used to describe a non-married partner, even if they have been together for 10 years and have kids. There's been a revolt against the church due to politics in the 60s, so they don't like to go through official church weddings and just let common-law take care of it. – Almo Feb 23 '18 at 15:51
59

There is variation in how people use these words and the meanings are shifting.

In the past it was rare for an older person to be in an open, romantic relationship with someone, unless they were married. Older people had husbands, wives but not girlfriends or boyfriends. So these words were limited to young people.

Now it is more common for people to stay unmarried. A person may use the words boyfriend/girlfriend at any age. There is no upper limit. But the words boyfriend/girlfriend may suggest a less serious relationship.

Some people prefer "partner" to boyfriend/girlfriend as it sounds more serious (it also avoids having to mention the gender of your partner if you don't want to share this) Boyfriend/girlfriend/partner/husband/wife can all be used by both gay and straight people.

Note that, especially in American English, women will call close female friends "girlfriends", even when there is no romantic relationship. However, men tend not to refer to male friends as "boyfriends", they use "mates" (in British and Australian) or friends" or sometimes "buddies".

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    Even fifty years ago it was possible for a mature person to have a mature romantic interest without being married to him or her. Thus I disagree with "Older people had husbands, wives but not girlfriends or boyfriends." Although, I do agree that it wasn't usual to call the person "girlfriend" or "boyfriend." Other than that, it looks like we agree on all the other aspects! – aparente001 Feb 21 '18 at 21:42
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    It was possible, it was just rarer. If you go back to the 80s, 10% of children (in the UK) were born to unmarried mothers. Now it is close to 50%. There has been a real social change in which having an unmarried "partner" has gone from being exceptional to normal. – James K Feb 21 '18 at 21:49
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    Sure, I agree. But 50 years ago if you were 50 and were starting to get involved with someone, that still took a certain amount of time, and in the transition, there had to be a term so that conversation and planning could take place. What I remember hearing was "gentleman friend." The woman's husband had died. She had several children (preteen and teen) who gently teased her about her "gentleman friend." I think earlier in the 20th century one might have said "gentleman caller" for a male. – aparente001 Feb 21 '18 at 22:13
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    Note that in US English "mate" or "mates" is much less common than in BrE. By far the most common word I hear for an adult male friend is "friend", although there are many others, especially in some subcultures (e.g., "brother"). – Todd Wilcox Feb 22 '18 at 2:21
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    Agree with post, except "mates" isn't used in AmE. – ash Feb 22 '18 at 11:55
20

I've heard these words (boyfriend/girlfriend) applied to people in their fifties. So yes, they have expanded to cover people of all ages.

The 2015 edition of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage notes,

boyfriend, girlfriend. While some traditionalists still view them as informal, these terms are now widely accepted for people of any age. Companion and partner are also acceptable. When possible, follow the preference of those involved.

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    My wife had a friend (since deceased) who was a 70 year old man with a 20-something girlfriend. This was ten years ago. So, yeah, no limits. – Tom Hundt Feb 22 '18 at 1:49
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    Anecdotal evidence supporting this answer: until they married 2 years ago, my grandmother would call her new partner "my boyfriend", even though they were both well in their 70s. – Belle-Sophie Feb 22 '18 at 7:53
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    Yes, it is used, but it always feels wrong to me, and I'm sure I'm not alone. Generally we're being discouraged from referring to adult women as "girls" (e.g. in sports). On that logic a woman of 50 isn't a girl and therefore can't be a girlfriend. Most people I know are likely to say "partner". – Michael Kay Feb 22 '18 at 11:54
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    @MichaelKay Language doesn't work that way— if we don't call a 50-year-old woman a "girl", we can't call her "girlfriend". It's not mathematics. Things might be very much related or similar—and yet one will be offensive, and the other won't. There are no binding "dependencies" in language. – tenebris2020 Feb 22 '18 at 12:04
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    @tenebris2020 It would be useful to know your perspective. I'm in the UK, and in my circle I don't see "girlfriend" and "boyfriend" being popular terms for an adult partner. – Michael Kay Feb 22 '18 at 16:51
16

In the US at least, there's currently no age limit, although the older the person is, the more likely we are to hear other terms such as partner or significant other. There are other possibilities such as fiancé/fiancée, common law wife/husband, other half, sweetheart, romantic interest, special friend.

Fifty years ago, mature adults with a love interest didn't used to use girlfriend/boyfriend for the love interest. Previously one might have said gentleman/lady friend.

Notes:

  1. What you said about girlfriend meaning "a friend of a young woman" isn't right. Thus, for a heterosexual couple, one will hear

    My son and his girlfriend ....

    For a gay couple, one will hear

    My daughter and her girlfriend ....

  2. There's another meaning of girlfriend: female friend of a female. Example:

    Sonia, didn't you say you were going shopping for a new dress with some girlfriends this afternoon?

    The male equivalent to this is guy friend or bro (which is short for brother).

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    For older people (at least as I've heard it used) the term tends to vary with the seriousness/committment level of the relationship. So someone you're seeing fairly regularly with no intent of long-term committment would be a girlfriend. If you move in together it's more likely to be "partner" or "significant other". – jamesqf Feb 22 '18 at 4:01
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    Where I am situated definition 2 "female friend of a female" is so dominant that definition #1's example of "My daughter and her girlfriend..." would not likely be interpreted that way (as written) but if spoken it probably would be interpreted correctly, since there is a slight difference in spoken cadence when presenting a title (person of significance) and between what is a substitute for "a girl who's name isn't important to this conversation". – Quaternion Feb 23 '18 at 1:38
  • @Quaternion - Agreed, context helps. E.g. My daughter and her girlfriend are coming here for Thanksgiving this year. – aparente001 Feb 23 '18 at 1:55
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    While "guy friend" is the male equivalent of "girlfriend" it should be noted that it would be exceptionally rare for "guy friend" to be applied to a sentence where a male is the principle subject. – Quaternion Feb 23 '18 at 3:30
  • @Quaternion - Hard to understand what you're saying without examples. How's this? My son is having his guy friends over on Saturday so Sunday we'll have some cleaning to do. // But aren't we getting off on a tangent here? Why don't you pose a separate question -- and propose an answer? – aparente001 Feb 23 '18 at 13:55
7

There are a couple of things going on here. One is that compound words don't always derive their meaning purely from their components. For example, "homemade" means something made using relatively simple tools by one person or a small group, as opposed to something made in a factory. It is OFTEN something made in the person's home, and I presume that's where the word comes from, but no one would say, "That's not homemade because you made it in the church basement, not in your home."

So while "girl" normally means a young female and "boy" a young male, "girlfriend" and "boyfriend" are used to refer to a romantic partner of any age.

And by the way, a "boyfriend" is mostly definitely not "a friend who is a boy". If two boys are friends, then assuming they are not homosexuals, they would NOT be called "boyfriends". Calling them "boyfriends" would be understood to mean a romantic or sexual relationship, not two buddies who play rugby together.

"Girlfriend", on the other hand, IS often used for (heterosexual) female friends. Women regularly refer to female friends as "my girlfriends".

And second by-the-way, it is generally considered insulting to call an adult male a "boy". It is understood to mean that he is immature. But in many contexts older women are called "girls" with no insult intended. I'd guess that's because women tend to view "looking young" as a positive thing, that they've managed to hold on to their youthful beauty, while men tend to see an implication of immaturity as a stronger negative. There are exceptions, like if a group of male friends go on an outing together this is often called "a night out with the boys" or similar phrases.

  • I think this answer does a good job of explaining why this is not an easy question to answer. We don't generally call grown men and women "boys" and "girls" – except sometimes we do. We don't generally call non-romantic friends "girlfriends" – except sometimes we do. Any guidance we might give here will be riddled with peculiar exceptions. When Cake sings about wanting a "girl with a short skirt and a long jacket," for example, it's clearly talking about a rather sophisticated woman, not a teen or preteen, yet for some reason we don't bristle at the lyric. – J.R. Feb 23 '18 at 20:40
  • We sometimes say, "This challenge will separate the men from the boys." I've never heard someone say, "This challenge will separate the women from the girls." :-) – Jay Feb 23 '18 at 22:03
  • @J.R.: Unfortunately, your example is more obscure (at least to some of us) than the plain usage. Why should short skirt & long jacket be a sign of a sophisticated woman? – jamesqf Feb 25 '18 at 2:10
  • @jamesqf - It’s the entire context of the song that makes it work, not just the title. (You’ll have to take my word for it, or else look up the lyrics.) Anyway, my comment was meant to get people thinking about music in general, not necessarily that specific instance. I have seen where a grown woman exclaims with indignation, “I’m a woman, not a girl!” – and rightfully so. Yet it’s interesting how many songs use girl instead of woman and it works just fine. I’m just pointing out that it’s not as easy as saying, “She’s a girl until she’s 18, then she’s a woman.” It’s more complex than that. – J.R. Feb 25 '18 at 12:52
  • @j.r. Saw a TV show once where a woman objects to being called a girl, saying, "I was a girl until my 18th birthday birthday, when I became a woman." And the man replies, "Was it at a drive-in?" :-O – Jay Feb 26 '18 at 7:09
0

In current usage, a woman may have a 'Girlfriend' of her own age, without any romantic connotation whatsoever. But if a man or woman has a 'Boyfriend' it implies a romantic relationship. There's also a Black Urban (is that the P.C. way to describe it?) usage where a woman will greet another as 'Girlfriend!'.

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