Everyone I know has at least one language pet peeve: a word or phrase that gives them the creeps. For some, it's "moist" (1 in 5 English speakers report having a distaste for this word), "phlegm," "smegma," or "masticate." But personally, one of my least favorite words in the English language is "girlboss": a seemingly innocent combination of vowels and consonants that sends shivers of implicit sexism up my spine every time I hear it.

In the field of feminist sociolinguistics, it is a widely accepted truth that in our language, as in our culture, maleness is seen as the default. This appears in countless contexts, but among them is the pervasive assumption that many esteemed professions — surgeons, scientists, lawyers, writers, actors — are perceived male unless proven otherwise. These subtle preconceptions are sometimes reflected when we say things like female doctor or woman scientist, the implication being that such positions are inherently male, while models, nurses, and secretaries, for example, are all default female. Something analogous happens when we insert the word "man" before what we consider "girl" words: "manbun," "manbag," "guyliner." These terms are catchy, but in the end what they do is accentuate the idea that objects often thought to be frivolous, like makeup and purses, are for women, and if men are expected to participate, the words must be rebranded in a masculine way.

The word "girlboss" in particular feels spiky, because while it wears a shiny facade of female empowerment, what it actually does is reinforce the notion that the word "boss" is not actually gender-neutral, but has default male implications. "Girlboss" may read as a glittering emblem of feminine power, and certainly makes for a zingy hashtag, yet in practice it doesn't quite work to undo gender divides — it enhances them. The same can be said of girlboss's cutesy cousins: "mompreneur," "SHE-EO," and "fempire." All of these words suggest that when a woman endeavors in business, we can't help but give her title a precious feminine makeover. What doesn't help is that the "girl" in girlboss is a diminutive. Can you imagine calling a 60-year-old man (or even a 25-year-old man) a "boyboss?" It would be absurd.

There is, in fact, an empirical explanation for our aversion to words like "girlboss": psycholinguistic studies show that in English, excessively "girly" suffixes like -ette and -ess have actively negative or at least diminutive connotations. After all, -ette did not start out as a feminine suffix, but as a way to refer to something smaller or of lesser value (kitchenette, cigarette). Words like "actress" and "waitress" are still in everyday use, but there used to be many more of these gendered nouns: neighboress, singeress, servantess, spousess, friendess, farmeress, and indeed doctoress were all real words in Middle English that have faded into obscurity. 

My contempt of these gendered words is pretty potent, but trickily, not every woman agrees on which feminized terms are empowering to women and which are oppressive. There are plenty of women who see the charm in feminine affixes: Consider, for instance, the UK company STEMette, which encourages young girls to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math.

This push-pull extends beyond grammar to the discussion of whether to insert the modifiers "woman" or "female" before certain job titles. On one hand, there are feminists who argue that it's sexist to call out a woman's gender in any context where the same would not be done for a man. (As television director Gloria Muzio once told an interviewer, "It's always been important to me and crucial to be thought of as a good director, not as a good woman director, but unfortunately, I've been singled out at times as a woman.") Then again, since it’s still harder for women to succeed in fields like science, medicine, and politics, calling attention to their gender in a title like "woman scientist" could help make women in these fields more visible.

In yet another ideological camp, there are those who attest that it doesn't matter whether you call someone an engineer or a "woman engineer," because it won't make a difference in how people generally conceive of engineers either way. Linguistic studies have found that many gender-neutral job titles (from "cardiologist" to "construction worker") are still usually interpreted as men's jobs, no matter what words you use to describe them. (Equally, titles like "housekeeper" and "babysitter" are interpreted as "women’s jobs," even though the words themselves are not gendered.) Furthermore, when new terms that are meant to be gender-inclusive are introduced ("chairperson" instead of chairman, "flight attendant" versus stewardess), they often wind up becoming just another feminine term — an outlier in a world where masculinity is still the default. There will always be people who continue to call a businessperson a "businessman" and will only switch to the gender-inclusive term when the subject is female — a sign that adjusting one's language in the right direction doesn’t necessarily cause one's unconscious thinking to follow.

There is no conclusive, objectively correct answer to whether or not phrases from "female doctor" to "girlboss" are flat-out sexist, and I am in no way claiming that every one of us must stop using them forever. However, with language in general, it is a wise practice to carefully examine the significance and impact of the words we speak, so that we can make better-informed decisions about whether or not to keep using them.