I’m pretty sure I knew what this student meant, but the statement gave me pause just the same.
I made no note of the context, but I remember most of the cases I’ve assigned as argument topics, and I don’t recall any that dealt with what I’d call a “young woman” per se. If he was writing an assigned essay, I’m very much afraid he must have been calling a girl of eight a “young woman.” Students do this: they’re a little afraid of the word “girl.” I had a feminist colleague at one time who refused to use the word and in fact, astonishingly, once referred to a friend’s new baby as a “young woman.” “Formidable years” would be, at least for me, gasp-worthy in reference to childhood.
The probability is that he meant to write “formative years.” All that vocabulary cramming in high school lodges a lot of words in the mind without necessarily connecting them in any permanent way with their meanings. “Formidable” is the kind of word one might acquire in this way. “Formative” is more like a word one hears a lot in school but doesn’t really stop to try to define. But I would have thought that given the desire to describe a young woman, and getting as far as “form-,” the typical writer would plop for “formative” for the very reason that “formative years” is a ready-made phrase, whereas “formidable” doesn’t come attached to anything. As a matter of fact, most of the times I’ve encountered the word “formidable” it has been an unadorned utterance—an interjection more than an adjective: “I got into Harvard!” says Taylor. “Formidable!” exclaims Jean. And that’s true whether Jean is speaking English or French.
What would make a particular age “formidable”? It isn’t really a word I associate with youth, frankly. “Terrible twos,” yes. “Formidable forties!” I’d say, perhaps. Or “formidable fifties!” (After that, one would logically move on to “Sensational sixties,” no?)
On the other hand, a young woman who has decided where she’s going and believes that no legitimate obstacles can deter her can be formidable. Coupled with confidence, the determination of youth can be awe-inspiring, all right. Wouldn’t that make a great ending for a high school or college graduation speech? “Watch out, World: I’m in my formidable years!”