In a romantic context this normally signifies a committed relationship where the individuals are not married. Other titles for example "wife" or "partner" usually signify that the individuals are legally married or otherwise in a form of wedlock.
The analogous male term is "boyfriend", which almost always implies romantic involvement.
In the context of a platonic relationship the term is mostly used to refer to female-female relationships; and the two word variation "girl friend" may be used to avoid implying a romantic or sexual relationship between the individuals.
"Girlfriend" and "partner" mean different things to different people and the distinctions between the terms are subjective. How the term is used will ultimately be determined by personal preference.
In 2005, a study was conducted of 115 people ages 21 to 35 who were either living with or had lived with a romantic partner. It notes that the lack of proper terms often leads to awkward situations, such as someone becoming upset over not being introduced in a social situation to avoid the question of their relationship .
There exists some ambiguity between the terms "girl friend," or a friend who is female , and "girlfriend." The transition between the two is a significant aspect of adolescent development.
Both forms of "girlfriend" and "girl friend" are used by different people to mean different things. For example, when the term "girlfriend" is used by a female about another female in a non-sexual, non-romantic context, the two-word form "girl friend" is sometimes used to avoid confusion with the sexual or romantic meaning; however, this is not a rule. In this sense of its usage, "girlfriend" is used in terms of very close friends and has no sexual connotations, unless it, for example, is in the case of lesbian, bisexual or pansexual women. The term "girlfriend" is also used in LGBT communities and can refer to people of any sex or sexuality.
The term "girlfriend" does not necessarily imply a sexual relationship, but is often used to refer to a girl or woman who is dating a person she is not engaged to without indicating whether she is having sex with them. With differing expectations of sexual mores, the term "dating" can imply romantic activity whereas simply using "friend" would likely avoid implying such intimacy. It is essentially equivalent to the term "sweetheart", which has also been used as a term of endearment. A similar relationship wherein there is no exclusivity is sometimes referred to by terms such as friend with benefits.
As of 2007, The New York Times style guide discouraged the use of the term "girlfriend" for an adult romantic partner, stating, "Companion is a suitable term for an unmarried partner of the same or the opposite sex." The Times received some criticism for referring to Shaha Riza as the "girlfriend" of World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz in one article about the controversy over their relationship. Other news articles in the Times had generally referred to her as Wolfowitz's "companion".
However, the 2015 edition of the New York Times Manual of Style states that the view on the term "girlfriend" as being informal is now relegated to the realm of traditionalism, and that it has become accepted to use "girlfriend" and "boyfriend" to describe people of all ages (with consideration given to the preferences of the people involved).
The word "girlfriend" was first used in 1863 as "a woman's female friend in youth." In 1922, the word girlfriend was used to mean a man's "sweetheart".
A similar, but not equivalent, concept is the more ambiguous "lady friend" - a companion of the female gender who is possibly less than a girlfriend but potentially more than a friend. That is to say, the relationship is not necessarily platonic, nor is it necessarily an exclusive, serious, committed, or long-term relationship. The term avoids the overt sexual implications that come with referring to a woman as someone's "mistress" or "lover". In that sense, it can often be a euphemism. The term can also sometimes be employed when someone simply does not know the exact status of a woman that a man has been associating with. For instance, tabloid headlines often note that a celebrity has been seen with a new "lady friend". "Lady friend" may also be used to signify a romantic relationship with an older woman, when the term "girl" as in "girlfriend" may be deemed age-inappropriate.