From the political ideology that gave us “front hole” come the movement to remove “guys” from our vocabulary.
“Okay, guys,” a female coworker of mine recently began, as she addressed me and a female colleague. Then she stopped herself, said she was making an effort to use more gender-neutral language, and carried on talking.
It was a small self-correction, and a glimpse at the conflicted feelings stirred up by one of the most common greetings in the English language. Guys is an easygoing way to address a group of people, but to many, it’s a symbol of exclusion—a word with an originally male meaning that is frequently used to refer to people who don’t consider themselves “guys.”
I know the South is maligned for using “y’all” but in fact I hear “you guys” far more frequently.
There are, of course, plenty of people—including many women—who have no problem being addressed as “guys,” think the word has evolved to be entirely gender-neutral, and don’t see a reason to change their usage. But others aren’t so sure.
It really has.
“I think there’s a really serious and welcome reconception of gender lines and relationships between sex and gender going on,” says John McWhorter, who teaches linguistics at Columbia University and has written several books about language. He says “something has crested in particular over about the past 10 years”—something that has people examining their everyday communications.
In my reporting I heard from several people who said that the word is particularly troubling for trans and gender-nonconforming people. “As a transgender woman, I consciously began trying to stop using guys some years ago,” says Brad Ward, a college counselor at a high school in Atherton, California. She added, “When I’m included with a group that is called guys, there’s some pain, since it takes me back to my male days in a way that I’d rather not go.”
This is where I go from “this is an interesting debate” to just hating people.
Guys has evolved into a gender neutral term, probably because “you people” has become a dreaded phrase is interpreted as “might as well be the N-word,” regardless of context. It is a natural evolution of the language.
Now, a few people who are part of a group of people that is less than a fraction of a percent of the population are upset that a word that was never a slur doesn’t like how it makes feel, we have to forcibly change the language.
This is where any good will and acceptance goes out the window.
I also heard that guys could grate on women working at male-heavy companies. In tech in particular, some told me they saw the word as yet another symptom of a female-minimizing industry. “There are a lot of guys in tech and ‘guys’ is used all the time in my work and social environments by both men and women, but since it doesn’t resonate with me anymore, I do feel like I’m not part of the group,” says Amy Chong, a 29-year-old user-experience researcher in San Francisco.
Pro Tip: if you are going to police other people’s language because they use a term in a gender neutral way and you don’t feel included in it, you are never going to be part of the group.
As these examples indicate, there’s additional scrutiny these days on communications that happen within or emanate from organizations. This is likely why, after I put out calls for opinions on guys, I heard from many people who worked in education or customer-facing jobs. I heard from one teacher who switched to using folks after thinking about the inclusive-learning environment he’d like to create, and another who opted for peeps or scholars. Similarly, an employee at an outdoor-goods store told me that her company’s human-resources department had encouraged the use of more-inclusive terms when addressing customers. “Folks and y’all were determined to be more acceptably neutral and you guys was asked to be toned down,” she said.
I loathe the word folks because of the way it has been used by politicians. Remember how Obama was praised fro sounding “folksy” when campaigning in Middle America? Folks is the word elites use when they really mean “you ignorant, knuckle dragging rubes” but can’t say that.
I heard from people born and living outside the South who didn’t feel they could use the term naturally. “They’ll say, ‘y’all’? Are you from Texas?,” one Californian told me; another, who now lives in the Midwest, says she feels “self-conscious saying it as a non-Southerner.” And I heard from a Turkish-born woman living in Los Angeles who “felt a bit choiceless” selecting between guys and y’all after coming to the U.S., because of the gender politics of the former and because she didn’t “have the background to use the latter.” (She lamented that English lacks a gender-neutral second-person plural pronoun, unlike Turkish, her native tongue.)
McWhorter, the Columbia linguist, summed up the downside of y’all by saying, “You can’t use it at a board meeting.” Might it shed its informality if more people adopt it? “That’s not going to change,” McWhorter said, “especially because it’s associated with two things: the South and black people. And those two things are considered informal, and many people would have less polite things to say about both of those things.”
Y’all is just too informal and tainted by being “southern.”
This crowd of guys-objectors is not alone historically. People have been resisting the term for decades, and perhaps the most passionate opponent of the word is Sherryl Kleinman, a former professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In a 2002 essay in the journal Qualitative Sociology, she wrote about the problem with male-default terms such as “chairman,” “congressman,” and “mankind.” Kleinman saw them together as “another indicator—and, more importantly, a reinforcer—of a system in which ‘man’ in the abstract and men in the flesh are privileged over women.”
She reserved a special disapproval for “you guys,” which she considered the “most insidious” of these phrases, and with the help of former students made a small card that anyone could print out and, for instance, leave behind at a restaurant to communicate their dislike of the term to an employee who had used it. “When you’re talking to a group of customers, gender doesn’t really matter, so why not replace ‘you guys’ with ‘you all,’ ‘folks,’ or ‘y’all,” it reads in part.
Here is her card:
This woman is the death of the American university system personified. This has nothing to do with actually being offended and everything with trying to control the language.
Orwell explained this best in 1984.
“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.”
This card exist to shame people who use language that her orthodoxy hasn’t authorized. Keep this woman away form power because I guarantee she’s criminalize language if we could.
Since this woman an her ideological peer want to police the gender out of our language, I have an alternative for gender neutral term for people like this.
Every human has one, regardless of gender.
“You assholes” is perfectly acceptable. A group of them are “plus assholes” and a lot is “double plus assholes.”
So listen to me you double plus assholes at The Atlantic, you can take your arbitrary policing of the language and shove it in whichever hole you identify with being the least pleasurable.