Friday, June 26, 2015

Guys, "guys" is perfectly fine for addressing diverse groups

With the Political Correctness police gaining momentum again after being laughed out of the 80ies, the word "guys" has apparently come under attack as being "non-inclusive". After discussing the topic a bit on twitter, I saw Peter Hosey's post declaring the following:

"when you’re addressing a mixed-gender or unknown-gender group, you should not use the word 'guys'."
As evidence, he references a post by Julia Evans purportedly showing that for most uses, people perceive "guys" to be gender-specific. Here is the graph of what she found:

What I find interesting is that that data show exactly the opposite of Peter's claim. Yes, most of the usage patterns are perceived as gender-specific by more people than not, but all of those are third person. The one case that is second person plural, the case of addressing a group of people, is overwhelmingly perceived as being gender neutral, with women perceiving it as gender neutral slightly more than men, but both groups at over 90%.

This matches with my intuition, or to be more precise, I find it somewhat comforting that my intuition about this appears to still match reality. I find "hey guys" neutral (2nd person plural), whereas "two guys walked into a store" is male.

Prescription vs. Description

Of course, they could have just checked their friendly local dictionary, for example Webster's online:
guy (noun)
Definition of GUY
  1. often capitalized : a grotesque effigy of Guy Fawkes traditionally displayed and burned in England on Guy Fawkes Day
  2. chiefly British : a person of grotesque appearance
  3. a : man, fellow
    b : person —used in plural to refer to the members of a group regardless of sex
  4. 4 : individual, creature <the other dogs pale in companion to this little guy>
So there we go: "used in plural to refer to the members of a group regardless of sex". It is important to note that unlike continental dictionaries (German, French), which proscribe correct usage, the anglo-saxon tradition is descriptive, meaning actual use is documented. In addition, my recollection is that definitions are listed chronologically, with the older last and newer ones first. So the word's meaning is shifting to be more gender neutral. This is called progress.

What I found interesting is that pointing out the dictionary definition was perceived as prescriptive, that I was using trying to force an out-of-touch dictionary definition on a public that perceives the word differently. Of course, the opposite is the case: a few people are trying to force their perception based on outdated definitions of the word on a public and a language that has moved on.

Language evolution and the futility of PC

Speaking of Anglo-Saxons and language evolution: does anyone feel the oppression when ordering beef or pork? Well, you should. These words for the meat of certain animals were introduced to English in 1066 with the conquering Normans. The french words for the animals were now used to describe the food the upper class got served, whereas the anglo-saxon words shifted to denote just the animals that the peasants herded. Yeah, and medieval oppression was actually real, unlike some other "oppression" I can think of.

Of course, we don't know about that today, and the words don't have those association anymore, because language just shifts to adapt to and reflect reality. Never the other way around, which is why the PC brigade's attempts to affect reality by policing language is so misguided.

Take the long history of euphemisms for "person with disability". It started out as "cripple", but that word was seen as stigmatizing, so it was replaced with "handicapped", because it wasn't something a defect with the person, but a handicap they had. Then that word got to be stigmatized and we switched to "disabled". Then "person with disabilities", "special", "challenged", "differently abled". And so on and so forth. The problem is that it never works: the stigma moves to the new word that was chosen because it was so far stigma-free, so nowadays calling someone "special" is no longer positive. And calling homeless people "the temporarily underhoused" because "home is wherever you are" also never helped.

So leave language be and focus on changing the underlying reality instead. All of this does not mean that you can't be polite: if someone feels offended by being addressed in a certain way, by all means accomodate them and/or come to some understanding.

Let the Hunting begin :-))


henchman said...

So, you say that because it is documented that guys was used for a very long time in a generic masculine way (discriminating women), it's still okay to do it know?

Imho Websters dictionary should go with the time and should remove generic masculine wordings or at least mark them as not promoting gender equality.

Marcel Weiher said...

@henchman No, exactly the opposite. Did you read the post?

The gender neutral meaning of "guys" (in 2nd person plural) is the modern one, it is getting more gender neutral over time. "Going with the time" means dropping the silly insistence, based on outdated usage, that "guys" is not gender neutral and therefore not inclusive. It is, and is, and only becoming more so over time.

Clearer now?