February 28, 2007


Can the Term "Guys" Refer to Women and Girls? (Heather Gehlert, 2/28/07, AlterNet)

Going out to eat with my father is always a tense affair. For the five or ten minutes it takes from the time the host or hostess seats us to the time our server comes to take our order, I sit quietly, feeling anxious and wondering how our waiter or waitress will greet us.

Will she say, "How are you all doing today?" Or, "What can I get you folks to drink?" If we're near our hometown in the rural Midwest, there is a good chance she'll say the latter, but, more often than not, we hear: "Hi, my name is Jamie, and I'll be taking care of you guys today. Our specials this afternoon are smoked salmon, parmesan-crusted tilapia ..."

"Excuse me," my dad cuts in, his eyes narrowing to a glare, "but I only see one guy here."

My stomach drops and I stare at the table in front of me, trying not to roll my eyes. The lecture never takes more than a minute, but it's still excruciating.

On rare occasion, a waiter or waitress will argue back, saying "guys" is a gender-neutral term. But, most of the time, he or she just stands very still, jaw dropped, looking stunned.

Because this exchange never leads to a thoughtful discussion of gender and language, I long ago dismissed it as one of my dad's quirks -- a one-person tirade to laugh at and let go of. Besides, one of my father's biggest heroes is Bill O'Reilly -- not exactly a portrait of feminist ideals.

Yet, for whatever reason, now that my dad and I live in different states and I see him only once or twice a year, I'm noticing how often men and women use the phrase " you guys" to refer to both sexes. It happens in restaurants, at council meetings -- even in grade-school classrooms.

And so, a voice in the back of my head is starting to say, Maybe he has a point. Maybe this isn't an arbitrary battle over an arbitrary word.

Imagine how often their food gets spit upon?

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 28, 2007 7:32 AM

Guys works for me although I have a Danish friend who reacts the same way as the author's father.

Posted by: erp at February 28, 2007 10:10 AM

"Imagine how often their food gets spit upon?"

Hah, I was wondering the same thing while I was reading that. Don't be a jerk to your waiter or your nurse. This lady's father sounds like a real pain-in-the-tucchus. Bet he's a lousy tipper too.

Posted by: Bryan at February 28, 2007 1:27 PM

In most Latin-based languages, words for groups take the masculine form if there is a single male present. Amigos unitados! Ensemble mes amis! Think of it as the latest international test.

Posted by: ras at February 28, 2007 1:57 PM

Who was it, Rita Moreno, with her "Hey you guyyyysssss!" She probably started it all.

Posted by: RC at February 28, 2007 1:57 PM

It's an interesting issue. We may sympathize with linguistic purity, and join in exercising a conservative restraint on shifting usages.

However, the use of "guys" in a gender-neitral way is well established in colloquial speech, and is actually consistent with the old English-language rule of masculine preference. Thus words such as "men" or "mankind" stand for all of humanity.

For all that, correcting a stranger's choice of words under the above circumstances is uncalled for.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 28, 2007 1:59 PM

Here's a little experiment for any wait-person to try...

The next 10 groups of three or more people he or she adresses at the table hear her say: "Hi, my name is Jamie and I'll be taking care of you girls today..Our specials this afternoon are...."

I predict that the combined tips from those 10 groups to the wait-person would be less than $3.00.

Regardless of the sex of the diners.

Posted by: John J. Coupal at February 28, 2007 9:07 PM

John, you're right. Girls don't like to be called girls, or ladies, or ... ? How does a waitperson address a table of distaff homo sapiens that won't offend them? D*mned if I know.

Posted by: erp at March 1, 2007 12:49 PM