Guys, Guys: Inclusive Language Is Important, But Let’s Not Warp A Word’s Meaning
On Tuesday the 17th of November, Doctor Krystal Evans—it is not clear in what discipline she earned her doctorate, but from her Twitter bio it would appear to be a hard science—tweeted the following: “Guys is not a not an inclusive term for addressing a group. . . Here’s [sic] some alternatives to try. #inclusion #InclusiveTerms #genderneutral” followed by a graphic of gender-neutral terms one might use to address a group of people. It included such gems as famjam, kitkats, epic humans, both folks and folx—yes, a commenter did insist that folks was not gender neutral—theydies and gentlethems, comrades, change makers, niblings, snickerdoodles, peep-a-doodles and gum drops.
I imagine a tense staff meeting. The embattled CEO steps up to the podium, sweat pouring down xer face. Xe intones, with a seriousness which cannot be challenged, “Gum drops, the future of Ludicorp has never been more uncertain.”
I do not object to Dr. Evans’s desire to speak in inclusive terms to groups of people. I do that for a living. However, guys has done nothing wrong here. In fact, guys is a word with a fascinating history of shifting connotation and denotation. I don’t know anyone who considers it to be a gendered plural noun.
Dr. Evans did respond to criticism on this point by tweeting, “I don’t identify as a guy. I don’t refer to myself as a guy. No one would describe me as ‘that guy over there’. . . My partner wouldn’t say he’s married to a guy. . .”. This is, of course, moving the goalposts.
The word in question here is guys, not guy.
Guy and guys are two different—admittedly intimately related—words. One need not carry precisely the same connotation and denotation as the other. Guy has well-worn use as referring to a male. 1 Guys has come into use referring to a group of mixed or unknown gender.
People often think of a language in static terms. Those who used to speak our language spoke one way, but we speak this way now. There is a notion of correct and incorrect language, proper and improper English.
As kids we used to say, “Ain’t ain’t in the dictionary.” This was and is factually incorrect. In many dialects it’s a valid word, it is common and correct. It just wasn’t where I grew up.
Don’t get me started on the value of youse, y’all, and all y’all. I’m in favor of all three though they would sound forced and awkward coming out of my mouth.
The reality is that a language is a constantly churning turbid fluid with a standard set of words and system of using them most honored in the breach. The variety of dialects of the English language is so broad that some dialects are not mutually intelligible.
There was an incident in my childhood—permanently embossed on my memory—when I was twelve or thirteen, when I discovered this for myself.
We were in Edinburgh, Scotland, and my father pulled our rented car over to the sidewalk to ask a man—an old man, as I recall him, in a tartan kilt and matching tam o’ shanter—directions to our Bed and Breakfast for the night. We were lost. The man answered enthusiastically and my father nodded along, rolled up the window, turned to the passengers and asked us, “Did anyone understand any of that?”
Words are not clearly nor permanently defined units but mutable things, constantly in a slow flux of denotation, connotation and shades of meaning. Someday take a moment and look at all the definitions of little words like so and to. Some words go out of existence altogether and some blink out and back again. Pronunciations change—knight was spelled as it sounded at the time—and spellings change—early standardizers of spelling put the ess in island and the pee in receipt indicate their etymology prior to their adoption into English despite the fact that the sounds those letters made had already disappeared in their original languages before we adopted them.
English has borrowed the same word from the same language at different stages of its development. We took a word from what would develop into Modern French that sounded like cow and then, centuries later, borrowed the word, which now sounded to English speakers like beef, for a second time to refer to a related concept.
Many words used initially pejoratively were taken on by the victims of their use as a badge of honor. “You call us this, well, we are this and we’re damn proud of it.” This usage over time robbed the words of their negative connotation—destroyed their power, as it were—and became general terms devoid of the hate and derision they once carried. Quaker. Shaker. Mormon.
The n-word has not yet completed this process but appears to be in the middle stages of it. At this point it is used by members of the African American community as a term of confraternity, but it is not yet completely sapped of its origins in hate and dehumanization. This is why it is okay for some people to use the word, but not others.
The object of Dr. Evans’s misguided ire—guys—is another word which went through a process of de-weaponization like Quaker and Mormon and as the n-word may be going through now.
It’s a great story.
It all starts with the name Guy, as in Guy Fawkes.
Some wag once said Fawkes was the only man to get into Parliament with honest intentions.
To make a long story short, Guy Fawkes was caught in an undercroft hard by Parliament with a large volume of gunpowder and the intent to detonate said gunpowder during the State Opening of Parliament, thus killing the king and a healthy proportion of Parliament and—in theory—sparking a pro-Catholic uprising placing a more tolerant monarch than James I on the throne.
That was the 5th of November.
Needless to say, there was much rooting out of the conspiracy through torture and plenty of hanging and drawing and quartering ensued.
An attempted regicide—which would also have taken out the landed and popular elite—tends to have that effect.
Thus, they remember—remember!—the 5th of November, 1605.
Guy Fawkes was, dressed in tatters, dragged to the scaffold—this would be the drawing—where he was to be hanged and quartered. However, by intention or accident, he fell from the scaffold—or perhaps climbed too high so that the rope was improperly set—and his neck was broken.
This was not the manner of most deaths by hanging in those days. The condemned was expected to be strangled to death, the rope tightening as he struggled on for excruciating minutes.
But Guy’s neck had snapped, cheapening the entertainment the crowd expected. His body was none-the-less duly quartered and shipped off to the four corners of England.
The 5th of November became a rallying cry and a call for sermonizing against the Catholic threat, real and perceived. It is still the occasion for bonfires, fireworks and mischief. Guy Fawkes and his tattered robes became synonymous with the man himself, thus it became acceptable for certain people to abuse—verbally and physically—impoverished men on the streets on Guy Fawkes Night.
The victims of this abuse were called guys. They were fit only as a proxy for the original.
In time, poor men as a class became known—through an understandable, if cruel, generalization—as guys.
This sort of metaphor is frequently encountered. Groups of young nuisance children were, at one time, equated with a small nuisance animal of the time, the hedgehog. The beautiful thing about this equation is that the common term for hedgehog was urchin. Thus, a sea urchin is, in a proper way, a sea hedgehog.
Eventually those poor men embraced the identity and began calling each other guys. Over the last century the connotation has softened to become, first, “a group of males regardless of social standing” and now to “a group of people, regardless of gender”.
I’m sorry, theydies and gentlethems, but addressing you gum drops as peep-a-doodles—which sounds like the results of one of Dr. Moreau’s experiments 2 —is not being more inclusive. It is exclusion, not inclusion.
If people misunderstand the reality of a word the proper thing to do would be to explain the reality and clear up the misunderstanding, not to suggest a laughable list of neologisms. The underlying issue is not the word guys but the notion that because it once had something to do with males exclusively it is thus forever tainted and must be excluded from speech in polite company.
Dr. Evans said she prefers to use the words folks, team and everyone and I have no problem with that—she might want to be careful with that first one, though, because everything is problematic now and words apparently mean whatever you don’t like them meaning—she is, all facetiousness aside, using existing words which convey the meaning she intends. This is laudable. I have no objection to her choice to use those terms. What I disagree with is her rationale.
My disagreement there is on two points. First, the word guys is not gendered, as she purports. Secondly, even if it were gender exclusive, it should not be replaced by condescending neologisms. She can’t make me call a mixed gender group of people meow meows or lovelies. It’s not going to happen.
Whether she knows she is or not, Dr. Evans is engaging—out of purely good intentions, I have no doubt—in an Orwellian process of bringing about Newspeak. Some of these efforts come from governments, but the standard bearers are thought vigilantes seeking to repress freedom of expression. I would be willing to wager that almost all them don’t see themselves this way—as I said above, I genuinely believe these are well-intentioned efforts to make the world a better place, from a certain point of view—but what it amounts to is modern puritanism; the only difference between the present expression and the 18th century sort is the shift in deity from an infallible God to an apotheosized notion of Progress.
There is enough real evil in the world without inventing new monsters to slay. Going on a moral crusade about the word guys is not going to be important to China’s Uighur minority being tortured in re-education camps, Falun Gong members having their organs harvested or Ethiopian refugees fleeing violence.
Some of you niblings need to, as they say, check your privilege. And leave guys alone.
- I heard, a couple of years ago, two late high school aged girls at a sporting event enthusiastically commenting on it and constantly referring to each other as bro in the most dudebro way possible.
- In Old English the word mann has a common, secondary sense of “a person of unknown gender”. The word for a male adult was wer, from which we get the word werewolf, which is Old English for peep-a-doodle.