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From Football Hooligans to Women, Too?: The Evolution of ‘Lad’ as a Gender-Neutral Term

A few months ago, I dialed into our daily pitch meeting from my greater London house five minutes late. As my digital arrival interrupted several of my colleagues, I said, “Sorry, lads.” It was a strange turn of phrase — partly because my colleagues, who are American and living in L.A. — hadn’t heard the term “lad” much outside of British TV shows and movies, where it’s used to refer to male characters, usually reckless guys between the ages of 16 and 30 who drink tins of lager, smoke roll-up cigarettes and throw fists on behalf of their favorite football teams. (Think movies like 2005’s Green Street, in which an American journalist, portrayed by Elijah Wood, ends up joining the West Ham football club “firm,” a group of dudes who spend most of the movie deliberately getting into fights and nursing their hangovers with endless pints of beer and bacon sandwiches.)

In Britain, though, “lad” stretches back centuries. Originally derived from the phrase “Jack the lad,” a term which, depending upon who you ask, could have been frequently used in 19th century in Scotland or in the north of England to refer to a young, working male. That said, other research suggests that the origins stretch back even further — all the way to the medieval period, where the term “ladde” or ‘“laddie” was used when referring to young fighting men who usually served as foot soldiers in the army.

Either way, in the late 1990s, the term ended up being reappropriated to represent a form of overt masculinity. In 1993, the British journalist Sean O’Hagan wrote about the lad being a reaction to the growing culture of both male metrosexuality and influences of feminism and anti-sexism emerging in pop culture. The lad was, according to O’Hagan, a masculine response to the “one who has subjugated his masculinity in order to fulfill the needs of women… this passive and insipid image.”

O’Hagan wasn’t the only person to see the emergence of the modern lad as antithetical to the metrosexual male. In 2006, University of Leicester sociologist Tim Edwards argued that the lad embodied men who were “pre-feminist” and “actively shunned sensitivity” by adopting habits of excessive drinking, violence and sex. Now defunct British men’s magazines like Loaded and FHM embodied this culture, producing publications that were rife with scantily-clad women, sexist humor and misogynistic takes on dating, all of which formed the basis of “banter” in lad culture. (They were, in fact, called “laddie magazines.”)

Yet only a decade later, a number of essays about another reinvention of the lad began appearing in the British media. The Guardian referred to this as the dawn of the “The Nu Lad,” or “a hipster that doesn’t look like a hipster … a 20-something guy from no discernible background, who prefers tracksuits to tweed, and a warm can of Stella over a pint of craft beer.” The Nu Lad aesthetic combined warehouse sportswear brands like Adidas and Reebok with the emerging market of luxe streetwear like Supreme and Palace. Essentially, the Nu Lad was just a nicer term for fuckboi.

But aesthetics weren’t the only marked change of the lad. VICE writer Angus Harrison suggested that the evolution of lad was political as well. Britain was seeing the rise of the “woke lad,” a kind of British version of the “cuckboi” — a phenomenon described as a “complex iteration of lad culture which has nothing do with lads at all.” Rather, a Woke Lad is more likely to identify politically as left-wing and will talk about being disenfranchised by centrist politics and economic liberalism as much as he will about football or streetwear. A Woke Lad is a quintessential millennial, a British Bernie Bro. “This is about playing a character,” Harrison writes, “a figurative absolute boy who cares about little more than ice-cold cans and properly funded public services. As such, being imagined, this ‘lad’ can be anyone; student, politician, trade-unionist, male or female.”

Hence my American colleagues puzzlement when I used “lads” in a room where at least half the people were women. In this way, “lad” now refers to anyone who was your friend, or who generally seems non-threatening. As such, it’s not abnormal to refer to a group of male and female friends you meet at a pub or a party as “lads.” Or to make plans in a group DM by saying, “What’s happening lads?” Indeed, most of my female friends now refer to each other as lads. (It’s kinda like how the term “guys” is used in the U.S.)

For some of these women, their use of lad is, in part, rooted in irony. “I was on a night out with my friends — five women and one man who is gay — and we all referred to each other as lads,” explains Sarah Childs, a 29-year-old HR manager in London. Childs, though, only uses the term with this select group of friends — despite the fact that she has a lot of male friends and hangs out with them regularly, too. “If I’m collectively referring to my male group of friends, I’ll use terms like ‘guys’ rather than ‘lad,’” she says, telling me that she feels like it’s more of a general term compared to “lad,” which she feels is a “more loaded term” when referring to a heterosexual male. “Calling them lads portrays them as loud, obnoxious and sexist, which they aren’t. But it’s the first thing lots of women think of when they hear the term.”

In part, Childs says it has to do with how British pop culture has characterized the lad — and by extension, lad culture, where instances of sexual violence have been dismissed as “boys being boys.” One prominent case occurred earlier this year, when 12 Irish rugby players were acquitted of rape, despite pages of WhatsApp messages that referred to women as “things to fuck” and where players reportedly made counts of how many women they’d had sex with. “If I used lad with [the straight men in my life], I’d be complicit in a culture that’s been extremely harmful to countless women,” says Childs. “So there’s a part of me that, in using it with only my female friends or my gay friends, gives it a different meaning.”

Not everyone agrees, though, that the term can be easily repurposed. “It’s easy to use lad carelessly when you’re cis, or you haven’t had to navigate any form of gender identity,” says Morgan, a 30-year-old Bristol-based trans woman. “The term feels exclusionary from the outset. Even if it’s used ironically, you find that the people who tend to use it are cis — they’re comfortable in the bodies they’re in — and using the term makes no difference to the way they see themselves or feel about themselves. It’s a real indictment of the state of our society that people can see a word that, from the outset is a gendered one, and make it gender neutral, but they can’t fathom the idea that a trans woman is a woman, or a trans man is a man.” Until that changes, she says it’s better to use terms that don’t have gendered histories. “Pals, mates and buddies are definitely more inclusive.”

More largely, disputes over lad’s use, contexts and appropriation point to a broader trend of turning away from gendered words, particularly in languages where masculine iterations are used as the standard (e.g., English, French and German). Last year, for instance, The Atlantic reported that French feminist groups were fighting for a gender-neutral version of the French language, arguing that its male-centric form produced “sexist outcomes” in education, the workplace and court. Meanwhile in Britain, universities are attempting to encourage students to use gender-neutral language in written work, with some even deducting points for using terms like “woman-like” and “mankind.”

Of course, as with pretty much everything else, the move toward demasculinizing language isn’t new. Since 1300, with the publication of the Wycliffe Bible in England, the language has introduced more non-masculine terms. And more recently, in the 1970s, with the rise of second- and third-wave feminism, gendered language was challenged by academics and activists who argued that its continued use enshrined patriarchal power.

For trans people like Morgan, however, encouraging others not to use lad isn’t the latest of these pushes, but rather, a plea for society to recognize how the language we use to define people can be limiting. “We forget that with gendered terms there are historically embedded expectations of what those people are and should be,” she says. “That applies whether you’re cis, trans or non-binary. Your life is affected if you don’t conform to those perceived standards. So if we want a more equal society where people can be themselves, using non-gendered terms has to be a part of it.”