“Becoming What We’re Called” by Alice Walker

16Feb05

Probably the aspect of the English language that bothers me the most is the fact that one word is used for both singular and plural second person. This lack of distinction has spawned several irritating alternative expressions for the plural “you,” “y’all” being the one that particularly frosts my cookies. “You guys” seems to be phrase that irks Alice Walker.

Even though I have heard many arguments against using “guys” as a neutral term for both men and women, I’ve never heard the argument articulated quite as beautifully as Walker does in this essay. The etymology that Walker provides of the word “guy” as both a noun and a verb is
interesting:

It would seem from the dictionary that the verb “guy” is another word for “guide,” or “control”: bearing a very real resemblance to “husband.” It means “to steady, stay, or direct by means of a guy, from the French guying.” The noun means “a boy or man; fellow; chap.” It means “a person whose appearance or dress is odd.” Again, as a verb, “guy” can mean “to tease; to ridicule.” And this last is how I feel it [sic] when the word is used by men referring to women, and by women referring to themselves. I see in its use some women’s obsequious need to be accepted at any cost, even at the cost of erasing their own femaleness, and that of other women. Isn’t it at least ironic that after so many years of struggle for women’s liberation, women should end up calling themselves this?

I understand her position and I’m with Walker until she makes this statement: “I don’t respect ‘guys’ enough to obliterate the woman that I see by calling her by their name.” I think she just means “guys” that fit her definition of “guy,” i.e. controlling, etc., but she sounds a little dismissive of the male sex as a whole. I’m sure there are one or two worthwhile chaps out there.

So, is “guys” preferable to “girls”? Okay, yes, “guys” erases women’s femaleness, but it doesn’t sound as condescending. Though, I suppose, Walker would disagree with that.

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