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For example, you wouldn’t use girl for a 40 years old woman or kid for a 20 years old woman (unless you’re far older).

Fräulein for single woman between what ages?
What is the age range for Mädchen?

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    "Fräulein" is an old-fashioned minefield. Avoid it or risk offending a woman. As a non-native speaker you shouldn't use "Mädchen" for anyone older than 18. And you shouldn't use Frau for anyone younger than about 16. Between 16 and 18 you should look for context, i.e., is it more a "children topic" or more a "grown-up topic". – Roland Nov 17 '15 at 9:51
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    Related: german.stackexchange.com/questions/966/… – chirlu Nov 17 '15 at 11:44
  • @chirlu "weibliche Person", "weibliches Wesen", oder wenn es wirklich ein Wort sein soll: "Weibchen" – Em1 Nov 17 '15 at 12:41
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    @Roland: Please do not use comments for answering the question. – Wrzlprmft Nov 17 '15 at 15:25
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    @Em1: "weibliche Person" sounds very technical. "weibliches Wesen" sounds almost comical and "Weibchen" is used for female animals. So don't use any of these in a "normal" (other than technical comical or zoological) context. – steffen Nov 18 '15 at 6:32
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Fräulein is not typically used any more. In fact, a lot of women can become quite upset if addressed this way. (Quite some time ago it described an unmarried woman, completely independent of her age).

You would use Mädchen for children and every time you wish to point to the fact that they are minors. After that, it would either be junge Frau or simply Frau.

Please note that the transition from Mädchen to Frau is a very soft one. In an official context, you would not use Mädchen for a woman of 18 years or more. In a more colloquial setup, that can be extended, and in a private context, there is no age limit for Mädchen.

The former german chancellor, Helmut Kohl, used to call Angela Merkel Mein Mädchen, which was supposed to express that he was fond of her, and on quite friendly terms. Angela Merkel at the time was well in her thirties.
It can also transport the age difference.
Again, note that someone has to be quite close for this word usage.

  • 3
    The decision whether to use Mädchen or Frau (and Junge or Mann) is similar, but not equivalent, to the decision whether to use du or Sie. – Crissov Nov 17 '15 at 14:17
  • Is my notion that Dame is predominantly used for elderly women false? I recognize that in polite conversation (say, a waiter addressing any female adult) it is used for younger people, too. – dezso Nov 17 '15 at 23:33
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    @dezso Dame is not necessarily used for elder women, but rather a sign of respect. I use it very often if I am referring to a female person I do not know, when talking to somebody I do not know. Just as I would use "Lady". – steffen Nov 18 '15 at 6:34
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    I would say that "when to use Mädchen or Frau" follows the exact same rules of "when to use girl and woman" in English – Ivo Beckers Nov 18 '15 at 12:36
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das Mädchen (neuter)

»Das Mädchen« is the historical diminutive of »Die Maid«. »Die Maid« has the same etymologic root as the english word »the maiden« and has a very similar meaning. A Maid was a young woman, often meant as sexually mature, but still being a virgin. A small (younger) Maid was a Maid-chen, which was always written as Mädchen.

So, a Mädchen is a female child. But when time passed by, the word Maid was used less frequently, and Mädchen began to be used in the same meaning as Maid before. In the 1970’s Mädchen was the usual word for women younger than 25 or 30 in a non-official context (among friends, but not in the job or in a shop or office).

But things changed again. Young women wanted to be respected in the same way as men of the same age. So, they didn’t want to be called »Mädchen« when they were physically mature women.

Nowadays it is safe to call a girl younger than 13 a »Mädchen«. If a woman is older then 18 or 20, then only her boyfriend/partner/husband might call her »Mädchen« (and only if she likes to be called so). So, as rule of thumb: When you can guess, that she is older than 14 or 15, avoid to call her »Mädchen«. She will like to be called »junge Frau« or just »Frau«.

das Fräulein (neuter)

»Das Fräulein« is also a diminutive. It literally means »small woman« or »little woman«. When the word »Maid« began to disappear, it was replaced from the younger end of its meaning-spectrum by »Mädchen«, as described above, but also from its older end by »Fräulein«. When the Maid has gone completely, »Mädchen« and »Fräulein« overlapped.

»Fräulein« was extensively used between 1850 and 1950, and had a more serious and mature touch than »Mädchen«. When ever a young tough woman was working and earning money (which was unusual in those days), she was called »Fräulein«. (The »Fräulein vom Amt« was the young lady who manually connected lines for phone calls, and a young female teacher was »das Fräulein Lehrerin«)

This is, why »Fräulein« became a synonym for the waitresses in a café or restaurant. This synonym is so branded in the German speaking society, that many people even in 2015 don’t know how to call a female waiter other than »Fräulein«, which is a problem, because »Fräulein« nowadays is considered political incorrect.

When ever »Fräulein« was used for children, then in one of two meanings, both somehow ironic:

  • To a 5 year old girl in its new dress, to make her a compliment:

    Oh, du bist heute aber schon ein richtig großes Fräulein in dem schönen Kleid!

  • To a 5 year old girl who was caught eating hidden cookies, in a strict tone:

    Na, mein Fräulein, habe ich dir das erlaubt?

But since »Fräulein« is a diminutive whose meaning can be interpreted as »a woman, but not for 100 %«, young women began to dislike it even more than »Mädchen«. And nowadays the usage of »Fräulein« is considered political incorrect. You better never use this word.

das Weib (neuter)

»Das Weib« never was used for girls or young women, always for mature women only. In days, long ago, German had this two pairs of words of adult people of different gender:

  1. der Mann — das Weib
  2. der Herr — die Frau

The first pair was used when the topic was the being and behavior as human creature (eating and drinking, sleeping, and of course sexuality). And when ever the differences was pointed out (der starke Mann — the strong man; das verführerische Weib — the seductive woman) this pair was used. And for that reason we still have this pair of adjectives:

männlich — weiblich (male — female)

The second pair (Herr–Frau) was used in a more sophisticated and cultural context. We still use this pair in salutations and addresses:

Frau Martha Eisenstädter
Landstraße 12
2080 Irgendwo

Herr Josef Steiner
Gartenlaubenweg 6a
8712 Woanders

die Dame (female)

But in 16th century in aristocratic societies the french word dame (french »dame« = mistress, woman, wife) was imported into German vocabulary, and over the centuries it changed the pairs:

  1. der Mann — die Frau
  2. der Herr — die Dame

This happened hand in hand with the devaluation of »Weib«.

die Frau (female)

If you want to refer to a women older than 15 or 18, then »Frau« is almost always the best choice. It is not a grammatical neuter diminutive like »Mädchen« or »Fräulein«, and it has not this somehow eccentric and uppish aura that sometimes is around the word »Dame«.

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    There's a word that hasn't been mentioned yet on this thread and I wonder why your thorough answer doesn't contain it. Possibly because it's not used in Austria. The word I'm talking about is "Mädel", synonym to "Mädchen", but to my mind quite frequently used in colloquial when referring to a young woman. – Em1 Nov 17 '15 at 12:24
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    It’s a common misconception or misrepresentation that (young) women in the “Fräulein era” did not work (just marry and bear children). They might have been exempt from “career jobs” and excused in the noble class, but there were plenty of women working in farms, factories, households etc. – Crissov Nov 17 '15 at 13:17
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    Dame is a funny and sad case. Standing alone (or besides Herr), it is associated with higher prestige than Frau (or even Weib), but due to that it is often used in compounds and contexts that have low prestige (and would otherwise use diminutive Fräulein or Mädchen), e.g. Bardame, Animierdame, Anstandsdame. That’s why it has been criticized by feminists, but much less than Fräulein and Mädchen (especially when used for adults). It is also often used with animals instead of Weibchen, e.g. Elefantendame_, and in sports, e.g. Damenmannschaft. – Crissov Nov 17 '15 at 13:25
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    @Crissov: In Germany, from 1880 to 1919, and from 1923 to 1951 (in Baden-Würtenberg up to 1965), there was a law that made it impossible for married women to work as teacher (or other kind of officer). If you was a female teacher during this period and wanted to marry, you had to quit your job. Same for Switzerland between 1912 and 1962 de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lehrerinnenzölibat – Hubert Schölnast Nov 17 '15 at 14:25
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    @Em1 In non-dialectal scenarios, Mädel is mostly used by and for young women to refer to their female friends, as in Mädelsabend and meine Mädels und ich gehen feiern. The closest male counterpart would be Kumpel. Notice the same ending -el (with totally different etymology). – Crissov Nov 17 '15 at 14:42
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In short:

  • Mädchen will usually emphasize the young age (< 18) of the person. It may also be used expressing fondness. It is also used in the context of fashion models. (cf. girl)

  • Fräulein is deprecated. It was used for unmarried women, which means you are inferring a maritial status, which might be offending. It was also used for waitresses, stewardesses, receptionists etc, implying they were not married. It sounds almost despective nowadays. (cf. Miss)

  • Dame is a formal way to refer to somebody. It is very respectful and in my opinion the word of choice in public space when referring to and/or talking to somebody you don’t know. “Meine Dame” can be used to address somebody but it sounds a little old-fashioned. Addressing a group of people, e.g. in a speech or letter, it is commonly used in the phrase "Meine Damen und Herren" resp. "Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren" (cf. lady, Madame)

  • Frau is a neutral way of referring to an adult or close-to-adult woman (> 16, maybe > 14, depending on the context). It is also used to address sombody formally appending the last name. (cf. woman, Ms)

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    "Dame" is still frequently used when formally addressing a large audience, as in "Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren". – Philipp Nov 18 '15 at 15:51
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If you are asking for referral to third persons, (‘the woman I met this morning’) the general terms you want to be aware of are:

  • Mädchen (and its dialectal forms like Madl, Mädel, etc.)

  • Frau

  • Dame

Mädchen works as long as the person can be considered a child or (young) teen, i.e. you would address them using du. (The overlap is not perfect but close enough.)

Dame when used outside of certain special environments, would be used exclusively when referring to elderly women with grey (or white) hair and at least a walking stick.

Frau would be used for everything else.

Do not use Fräulein unless you are prepared for the shitstorm that will follow. It is no longer considered adequate.


†: Note that the dialectal forms, especially Madl (Bavarian) can be used for young adults, too. Referring to grown women as Mädchen can be understood as anything between belittling and affection (cf the various references on this page to Helmut Kohl’s Mädchen Angela Merkel). I use Madl for all my female friends even if they are well in their twenties.

‡: In service environments, e.g. higher class restaurants, Dame and Herr may exclusively be used instead of Frau and Mann signifying the higher class as highlighted e.g. in Hubert’s answer.

♦: You can put your foot in it by using the word too liberally. I was once told off for using Dame referring to a woman who clearly felt younger than she looked (although she did fulfil the criteria of walking stick and grey hair).

♠: Note that Frau is never wrong for people older than Mädchen. specifically, it is always okay to refer to very old women as Frau. See also the note above.

  • Pro tip: Teach your toddlers to address every women they don’t know by name as Dame and they will get away with saying even nastier things than usual, because it’s just s.oO cute. (Herr doesn’t work quite as well.) – Crissov Nov 18 '15 at 13:19
  • I do not agree that the usage of any of these words has to do with the physical condition of the person. – steffen Nov 18 '15 at 17:50

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