Sexism in disguys

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It’s high time to rid ourselves of the sexist language that hides in our everyday speech

By Roma Ilnyckyj, Contributor

One blustery day last year, my boyfriend and I whipped into a restaurant for lunch. We both had our hoods on, and scarves up to our ears. The host greeted us with an enthusiastic “Hi ladies!” When she realized that Brian was, in fact, not a “lady,” she sputtered a red-faced apology that continued until she brought us to our table. Sadly, if she had said “Hi guys!” instead, she wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Few people do. The tendency to address mixed-gender groups with the word “guys” is so pervasive in our speech that it’s almost inaudible. And that’s a problem.

The general argument in defence of “guys” as a catch-all term is that the word has evolved to a point where, when used to address a group, its meaning is no longer exclusive to males. We have communally adopted this term because English is sorely lacking in a second-person plural pronoun (in other words, there’s no plural “you”). The problem with this, as gender theorists Kleinman, Ezzell, and Frost point out, is that “you guys” is a false generic; “guy” means “male,” not “person.” “You guys” is a gendered term masquerading as an equalizer, and it erases the female presence within a group.

Erin McKean, founder of the online dictionary Wordnik, dismisses the complaints against “you guys” as a case of “peevology,” the study of things that annoy people. She states that, “‘You guys’ may simply make some women feel overlooked or ignored.” That’s not it at all. It’s not about being annoyed or feeling personally ignored. It’s about why we, as an English-speaking society, have decided that the only possible solution to the problem of our language lacking a plural “you” is to grab a specifically male term and apply it to the whole. The entrenched use of “you guys” is one more indication that while we’ve made great progress towards gender equality, we often still default to the male.

We are well on our way to ridding English of sexist terms like “chairman,” and we’ve rejected the use of “he” to refer to unspecified people. Yet “you guys” thrives, largely because people like McKean argue that it’s easier than finding an alternative. And that, simply put, is lazy. Alternatives abound. Some of my favourites are “folks” and “friends,” but if you find those to be too cutesy or familiar, my suggestion is to stay simple and go with “you all.” What do you all think about this? It works! And for those who feel that “you all” is too dangerously close to “y’all,” I suggest that you either enunciate or research why this beleaguered syllable has such a bad reputation (it’s something to do with classism and racism, but that’s for another article).

I get a range of reactions to my crusade against over-guying. Often, people tell me that they agree but don’t know what to say instead. It’s a popular topic on gender and language blogs, so I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. But I also see a lot of eye rolls. I hear a lot of “Lighten up” and “Stop being so sensitive.” I’m accused of being the “word police.” Sometimes there’s simply a sigh, accompanied by, “They’re just words.”

Yes, they’re just words. So I challenge you—I dare you—next time you see a mixed-gender group of friends, wave and say “Hi ladies!” Watch what impact your words have.