Q From David Hughes in the UK: Recently I came across an Internet site where a writer claimed that the word girl used to mean any young person whether male or female, and that today the word youth means any young person of either sex. Both assertions came as news to me. Do you know whether there is any truth in them?
A For about two hundred years after it arrived in the language in the thirteenth century girl was indeed a general term for any young person. If a writer wanted to make clear the sex of the person, he had to add a qualifier: knave girl for a boy, and gay girl for a young woman. But by the sixteenth century the word had shifted to our modern sense.
Youth is rather more complicated. In one sense, it can be used for young persons of either sex, usually when we are thinking of young people as a group or in the abstract. We can, for example, speak of youth culture, a youth club, or a youth hostel. In all these cases, there is no distinction of sex. The same applies when the word appears as an abstract noun for the state of being young, as in “in the days of her youth”, “in his youth he was a fine footballer”.
On the other hand, when the word refers to individuals it almost always means young men: “the youths were arrested in the shopping centre” or “They caught a youth in a nearby park”. But these tend to be formal usages, as the examples show.