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March 14, 1999 - 'Guys' - 2002-02-12

INTRO: OK, guys, listen up. In American slang a "guy" is a man. But Americans increasingly use the plural -- "guys," g-u-y-s -- to address both men and women together. It's simpler and more casual than saying, for example, "guys and gals," or "ladies and gentlemen." To some people, though, calling everyone "guys" sounds silly. Our Wordmasters, Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble, talked with Peat O'Neil, who wrote a newspaper article expressing this view.


O'NEIL: "Hi, I'm Peat O'Neil. Actually my first name is Louisa, and the Peat is spelled p-e-a-t. The piece I wrote was in the Washington Post. It's [headlined] 'Where the Girls Aren't, or Guys R Us,' all about the use of the word 'guys' for collective humanity."

RS: "Why did you decide to write the piece?"

O'NEIL: "Well, I was mad. I was tired of going into fancy restaurants with a date, a male date, or maybe two or three women, and we'd be addressed as 'guys,' and the collective noun 'you' would have been just as appropriate. Or 'how are you tonight?' Meaning all of us."

RS: "So that led you to do a little bit of research about guys, because we're not just hearing it in restaurants, we're hearing it all over the place."

O'NEIL: "Everywhere, and I think it's the last ten, fifteen, twenty years that this word has replaced all others for referring to adult human beings of either gender."

AA: "Is it sexist?"

O'NEIL: "Well, it is imprecise, and that's my primary objection."

RS: "So are you on a one woman crusade to eliminate 'guys' from our language?"

O'NEIL: "Well, I do note it, and I grumble a little, and I'm becoming more vocal when I'm in a situation where I think it's inappropriate to be called a guy. I will speak up and say, 'ahem, I am a lady.'"

AA: "So when you walk into a restaurant with a group, you would prefer that the maitre d' look and say, 'Guys and lady, this way, follow me'?"

O'NEIL: "Or 'your table is ready' or 'how are you this evening?' Or 'ladies and gentlemen' or 'madam and monsieur' or 'ma'am and mister.' Something a little more elegant and uplifting."

RS: "So you don't want to be one of the guys."

O'NEIL: "No, no. I can arm wrestle and kayak and scurry up a mountain just as well as those guys, but I'd like to be called something that designates my unique quality of being a woman."

AA: "Is it a generational thing? Do you think younger women don't mind as much?"

O'NEIL: "It is interesting that you ask that. I think some of the younger women in my classes don't seem to have any objection to being called 'you guys' and call each other that. That may be fine for them, but I think it's a cheap word and we can do so much better with our brilliant language. And I would think that in our ethnic diversity with all the people moving into the United States, emigrating here, we could borrow some words from their culture that might be a little more elegant and less sexist. I know Spanish, and Italian, and certainly French, and many of the patois of Africa and the Caribbean have designators that are inclusive and I wouldn't be surprised if the Pacific languages did too."

AA: Peat O'Neil is an administrator at the Washington Post, and says it's a great ice-breaker when people call her for the first time, expecting to hear a "Peter" on the phone.

RS: Next Sunday -- Academy Awards night -- Avi and I will look at the influence of movies on American slang. And in two weeks we announce the top winners in our Name the Next Decade Contest.

AA: So stay tuned!

RS: With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Guys and Dolls"