Let's Put An End To Sexist Language

August 30, 2015

Cognitive researcher Douglas Hofstadter explains how gendered words and phrases — like using "guys" to refer to mixed company — can oftentimes reinforce sexist attitudes.


A patient angrily stated this when I asked her some question about her profession. She then added "you don't call female doctors 'doctresses', do you?" The reason for her anger confused me, because English is my second language and I had never stopped to consider these matters. In her case, I now feel it came from a fear of discrimination or loss of worth when using the female version of the noun. I'm still of 2 minds about it...

What's next? Do we do away with the terms "son" and "daughter" because they define the sex of ones child? How about "aunt" and "uncle"? I wouldn't want Aunt Mary to be offended by being typecast as a female.

Thank you so much for this story. I was just called "obviously mentally ill" by a man because I pointed out that he kept calling me "guy" despite the fact that I'd pointed out that I wasn't one. He said, as so many do, that he didn't consider the term to have a gender, but as you make clear, it obviously does. I also have noticed that women use the term too. What's a good replacement? "Folks" is kind of, well, folksy. I don't have another to suggest.

Professor Hofstadter's examples of the word "heroine" and the prefixing of a team name with "Lady" (e.g., Lady Panthers) seem to me more to the point than the word "guys." In much the same way as "they" is increasingly used for "he" or "she" when gender is irrelevant (or unknown), "guys" filled a similar gap in conversational English which lacked an informal word to use when addressing a small(ish) group of people and gender is irrelevant, mixed or unknown.

The fact that we -- modern speakers of conversational English -- did not settle on the word "gals" instead is worth discussing. But to say we are persisting a sexual bias by the continued use of "guys" ignores the fact that, while the singular "guy" remains gender specific, "guys" has lost its gender in common usage. We aren't choosing a male-specific term when we use "guys." The meaning of the word already changed (even the American OED defines the plural "guys" as not gender specific) and to say that we should not use it is to ignore the fact that it fixes a hole in the language that was forcing us to specify gender when gender wasn't relevant.

I'm often catching myself and my lady friends using "you guys". It's great to call this out as sexist language, but do we English-speaking folks have any suitable alternatives?

1) you'uns and all the variations of it - colloquial but very regional in usage
2) folks - is what the U.S. president uses, but doesn't have enough endearment to it
3) peeps - cool, but still considered a bit too informal. Rings as slang depending on age
4) ya'll - colloquial yet not as regional as you'uns

What else do ya'll suggest?

Thank you for bucking this sexist trend. Guys is masculine and is still used in many magazine articles and a lot of advertising to denote the male gender specifically. Let's call a group of people "people". There was never a hole in the language for a gender-neutral title for a group of people. The word has always been "people". I was raised studying textbooks that always used the male pronoun and we girls were always told that we were part of that too. Nonetheless it left several generations of girls believing that we were not included. It has a powerful subconscious effect to be overlooked or excluded. That's why all those text books were rewritten and now pick up any school textbook and you will see "she or he". We eliminated waitress and now we say "servers". This stuff is important. I was delighted to hear this interview and this particular dangerous idea. I am a gal and not a guy.

Thank you for exposing this pet peeve of mine. It has gotten me in trouble at work and other places and is endlessly annoying. I feel it makes women even more invisible than we already are. Alice Walker explains it in a wonderful short video on YouTube as "fear of the feminine". Most women feel more comfortable being called guys than ladies or gals and that is why they aren't offended by "you guys". I find it so sad! On the other hand, you call a man or group of men "gals" or "ladies" and you are itching for a fight, it's that insulting to be called a woman!

Besides that, it is terribly confusing, especially in a dance class when they address follows and leads as "you guys"!

Just lost all respect for Hofstadter. Do we really need to inform him that words have multiple meanings depending on context? And that looking for the worst possible meaning is how NOT to be an active listener?


I think we need to be more forgiving. We're all going to hear terms that don't fit our personal preferences. Expecting exact terminology from people is going to be frustrating. It's much easier to simply be tolerant of different ways of referring to people. If one can develop a thicker hide, life will be easier in our diverse world. I would prefer free speech and hearing terms that might not fit my expectations than having no free speech and hearing only what I want to hear.

Why is it sexist to use the word "heroine" when it refers to females, but also sexist to use the word "guys"? Am I missing the logic here?i

This guy is too intelligent to be spouting this social justice nonsense.

Using a word that doesn't refer to women as women -- "guys" -- is bad and sexist.

Using a word that does refer to women as women -- "heroines" -- is also bad and sexist.

Does not compute, but that's social justice and feminism for you.