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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

you go, girl

(1990’s | feminese (African-American) | “I love it!,” “be strong,” “do your own thing”)

This expression has punch and verve, a bit of alliteration, and even a certain amount of colloquial charm. And it has a distinctly modern sound; it’s impossible to imagine suffragettes saying it to each other, or even sixties feminists. Partly that comes from the insouciant use of “girl.” (I can imagine a sixties feminist saying “You go, sister,” but I don’t think any actually did.) Enlightened women didn’t address each other that way when men called women girls with impunity. Somewhere in there — “you go, girl” seems to date from the late eighties or early nineties; I found no examples in LexisNexis before 1990 — women grabbed hold of the demeaning, infantilizing epithet and made it a term of empowerment. The more I write this blog, the more I realize how essential such appropriation, nay, co-opting (as we used to say in the ol’ English department) is to the development of our language. I’m not enough of a historian to judge how long oppressed minorities have been turning insults into badges of honor, but since World War II it has developed into an industry.

It wasn’t just women who brought “You go, girl” into the language, it was African-American women. (One of the first uses I saw in print came from BPI Entertainment Wire, April 1994, citing hip-hop duo Tag Team’s new song “U Go Girl” and crediting them with “taking ‘Whoomp! (There It Is)’ from street slang into the mainstream.”) At that time, the simpler “Go, girl” turned up about as frequently, though it seemed to be used much more by white women, not that my sample size is large enough to be reliable. (By now, white women have adopted “you go, girl,” so there is no longer even the appearance of a racial divide.) Adding “you” makes for increased emphasis or ebullience. My memory suggests that “you go” unadorned preceded either girl-phrase, but I’m not really sure; maybe the non-gender-specific formulation actually came later. (There was an imported Eastern-bloc car, too — anybody remember?) There’s no class bias; you can say it to your workout partner at the gym or to the First Lady and it won’t be out of place.

The phrase is all about encouragement and solidarity; to date it has not developed much of an ironic side. The implication is that the woman in question is up to something unconventional, difficult, or maybe just healthy, but anyway, worth applauding. That is still predominantly true, even if derring-do is no longer necessary. “Way to go, girl” also turns up occasionally, but “way to go” was old when I was a boy and seems to have been slowly receding from our everyday vocabulary since.

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