Get with it guys

Head of the Diversity Council of Australia, David Morrison (Australian of the Year and former Chief of Army), launched a campaign (1 June 2016) that asked us to consider dropping inappropriate gender words and phrases from our workplaces. The #WordsAtWork campaign has singled out “guys”, which is commonly used to refer to a group including men and women, as a major culprit.

Intergenerational confusion

It does make me laugh as I recall only recently that my mother (ex-English teacher now in her eighties) admonished her grandchildren for using guys to refer to both young men and young women. My daughter who goes to a girls’ school refers to her friends as guys. In the middle of encouraging my mother to accept the intergenerational evolution of language along comes Mr Morrison with his big soldiers’ boots on who tells us we are all wrong.

Using gender-neutral language

More than a decade ago I wrote the policy and guidelines for using gender-neutral language in a large organisation so I sympathise and believe strongly in the intent of the campaign. However, I think Mr Morrison is making a big mistake getting in the way of what is the advanced development of a gender-neutral term for a group of people (specifically guys in the plural).

The story of guy

Guy is an interesting word with a wonderful history and has undergone far greater changes of meaning than is happening around us now.

Guy, in English, is a male name that came to us from French from the Italian name, Guido, which meant leader (from guide).

The role of Guy Fawkes

The most famous Guy in English history is Guy Fawkes, an early Catholic “terrorist” who tried to blow up the English Protestant Parliament on 5 November 1605. It was known as the Gunpowder Plot. He was caught, tried for treason and executed. (Incidentally, Guy Fawkes called himself Guido while a soldier fighting in Spain).

In a triumph of pre-20th century propaganda the Parliament has had the English celebrating the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot on the 5 November every year since (although in more modern times the British are more likely to mourn the lost opportunity for wholesale culling of their politicians). On 5 November the English burn effigies of Guy Fawkes on bonfires all over their country.

In the early 20th century a tradition grew for children to create their own Guys and parade them around asking for a penny to buy fireworks.

But Bonfire Night is not Guy Fawkes’ only legacy—based on the fanciful effigies created each year, the word guy became associated with, and then used to refer to, a grotesquely or poorly dressed person. In the US this then became more generic and was used just to describe a person (an American version of the English chap). The expressions fall guy, wise guy and tough guy are all wide usages.

Guys is a legitimate solution

The current use of guys may be a passing fad or it may be a new gender-neutral term. But I think we should just let it go its course. Current alternatives are clumsy and don’t work well: calling a group of people folks is condescending; calling them everyone is stilted; and calling them people can be clumsy (peoples is worse) and too formal for most occasions.

Mr Morrison has denied that he is leading the language police but he is doing just that—trying to influence language in a way that doesn’t reflect common usage (and, worse, trying to impose the older generation’s view on the young).