I'm Not Your Guy, Dude: Why Language Really Does Matter

March 6, 2017 Diane Rubino

“I’m not a guy,” the instructor said.

She was answering a student presenter who called the class “you guys.”*

He paused and blinked. But “you guys” came tumbling out moments later.

“I. Am. Not. A. Guy,” she said again, unruffled.

For the next few moments, he grew redder, repeating his mistake and hearing the same composed correction. Finally, he finished, seemingly unable to absorb the idea that men + women guys.

The student was mimicking a familiar irritant: imagining that “male” words are gender neutral. This path is so worn that even feminists follow along.

But consider this: female words do not enjoy the same privilege. Calling a mixed-sex group “You gals” would be extraordinary. A She might be a “Hey man.” But a He is not “Hey woman.”

When the gate swings only one way, toward obfuscating or negating women, it’s worth another look.

Failing to acknowledge women by using a male catchall phrase evokes the sexism woven into every aspect of being. As we near International Women’s Day, let’s claim inclusive verbiage that recognizes feminine existence.

Swept Under the Rug. Again.

This isn’t the first time women have been defeated in the name game. For example, we lost the right to our so-called “maiden name” centuries ago when a woman’s “legal existence as an individual was suspended under ‘marital unity,’ a legal fiction in which the husband and wife were considered a single entity: the husband.” If you weren’t a separate being, as feudalism-based law dictated, why would you need your own surname?

Women have been verbally and legally nonexistent for ages. Once the practice of invisibility was codified, it’s logical that as words, slang, and linguistic customs emerged they conformed to existing norms.

For example, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says “guy” entered the English lexicon in the 1300s. It originally meant guide or conductor, derived from similar words across the Romance Language spectrum. Americans began using "guy" as a synonym for man or fellow around 1850. But the OED—the self-proclaimed “definitive record of the English language”—omits an explanation of how guy subsumed women. Nor do we learn why “dudette” and “executrix” were cast aside in favor of male versions.

Conversely, female terms are not re-purposed. Is it because some describe slight animals: “female dogs” birds, chicks, or fillies? Or are they jettisoned because they imply low status, like broad and dame? (Bryson, The Mother Tongue, 1990)

What’s the Big Deal, Man?

Is this verbal tick so common that it no longer matters? Is it the Xerox or cellophane of gender?

It certainly makes a difference to those reading “male” as neutral. Asserting my right to be linguistically female regularly garners a sigh, eye roll, or “Oh brother.” Why? Most are neutral about every other word-choice edits. If they don’t care about being corrected for confusing “affect” and “effect,” why do accurate female terms aggravate?

If this verbal tick no longer mattered, everyone would easily amend their words. Instead, resistors make light. Their objection is a piece of the sexism institutionalized in our way of being, symbolic of more profound gender inequality issues. Claiming a word of one’s own, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, is a matter of fairness.

Even with clear advances in rights for women and girls, there is ample evidence we can do better. These unsatisfactory statistics were culled from recent studies:

Is This Political Correctness?

Part of the queasiness of “political correctness” is assuming others have trumped up motives. In this equation the speaker is aggrieved, and the petitioner is being difficult or picky. Instead, those who resist change allow themselves to continue saying whatever they want, relying on their own mysterious patchwork of justifications.

What feels right about one’s name is an internal decision. So why not let women like me, who don’t want to be called guys, claim our preference? Ah, but there’s the rub: How do you know what women want? Make it simple. If you don’t know, you can’t go wrong by assuming women want to be recognized as women.

Reject Faux Neutrality, Everyone

Guy, dude, and man are often believed to project gender neutrality—just as sexism is often accepted (as the study findings indicate). If sexism were intolerable, we’d be living in a gender equitable society.

Common, as in the use of catchall male verbiage and inequitable practices, does not translate common sense. I suggest a different path, being uncommon for the common good.

In theory, the student presenter who struggled with the idea that men + women guys could have easily adapted his words. He could have switched to folks, people, everyone, all of you, or you all. But in his confusion, he resisted. In this vignette, I see a reflection that women have not yet arrived.

Unlike the befuddled youngster, you can choose inclusive terms. You can acknowledge women. You can help others recognize women. When someone says, “Hey guys,” You can interject “Hey everyone.” It needn’t be The Inquisition.

We’re still fighting for our seat at the table. When we arrive, shouldn’t our place cards be right?

*Thanks to instructor Jackie Kellso for standing her ground.

Dedicated with love and respect to all my grrrls everywhere working towards gender equality.

Image Credit:Voronin76/Shutterstock


About the Author

Adjunct Instructor, New York University & Fulbright Specialist //

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