A male colleague could be forgiven for not knowing if using “guys” to refer to female co-workers is acceptable in the modern workplace. But should he address them as “ladies,” he risks a trip to HR, or at the very least being labeled a condescending creep.
So what in the name of Messrs Merriam and Webster is going on with what us linguists call “address terms” – that is, the words we use to address individuals – and their gender? All languages have such terms, with the most common being “you,” or the second-person pronoun.
But we have a host of alternative address terms commonly in use in the English language: “you guys,” “bro,” “dude,” “y’all” and “mate” – depending on the variety of English you are speaking – are among the most common. And then there are those that signal intimacy, such as “babe” and “honey.” Each comes with a degree of social signaling – that is, each one signals what the speaker believes, or hopes, their relationship to be with the person they are talking to.
But why are some terms that were once accepted, like “ladies,” now seen as offensive by members of the gender they reference, while others once dismissed as gender exclusive, like “guys,” are now deemed by many to be OK?
As a sociolinguist, I have the answer: Over time, the meanings of words change – especially address terms.
Dude, where’s my meaning?
Let’s start with meaning. Address terms are special words, as they identify the actual person you are talking to. “You” in English is the most generic and comes in handy if you don’t know the addressee – think, “Hey you!” In other languages, one must choose between more or less formal terms. In French, for example, there is the informal “tu” and formal “vous.”
But even in English, when addressing someone in, say, an email, you can choose between the formal, informal or very informal. In correspondence I have been addressed as “Dr. Kiesling,” “Scott” or “Scotty.”
Linguists call these contextually related meaning “indexicalities,” but here I’ll just call them meaning.
Words change their meanings over time, and meanings especially change as the use of an address term expands.
Let’s look at “dude,” a term I have studied for many years and which has changed significantly over its lifetime.
This term originally comes from the “doodle” part of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and at first it meant literally a dandy – a man who dresses especially well.
It was applied as a derogatory term for gangs in the U.S. West and Southwest known as Pachucos, or zoot-suiters, since they dressed in a flamboyant style. These gangs started calling each other “dude” as a way to both resist the insult and to signal solidarity among fellow zoot-suiters. So the zoot-suiters added a new meaning of solidarity to “dude.”
From there, “dude” spread to the jazz, beat and surfing communities in the West, and in the 1980s it exploded nationwide. But at that point, it mostly retained a masculine meaning.
“Dude” eventually evolved in such a way that it could be used without reference to anyone at all, and now can express a stance or emotion, as demonstrated with humor in an early 2000s Bud Light commercial in which “dude” – the only word spoken in the entire commercial – is used to mean everything from exasperation to joy.
Address terms like “dude” expand their usage constantly, and new ones are constantly invented. The most recent examples include variants of “bro” and “bruh” – which actually have slightly different meanings according to initial data from a recent poll I conducted. As best we can tell, “bro” was limited to being used only between men, but is now used by women as well, and “bruh” is used to express some sort of negative emotion or exasperation – by any gender – and doesn’t even need to be addressed to anyone.
Showing ‘ladies’ the exit
Although American-English writing styles have moved away from treating all humans as generically masculine, terms with masculine roots such as “dude,” “bro,” “bruh,” “you guys,” “chap” and “mate” have expanded to be able to refer to any human of any gender.
Address terms that lose their gender tend to have one thing in common: They start out as masculine referring terms, become address terms, and then expand.
This is rare for feminine terms. “Sister” or “girl” are similarly terms that have expanded their meanings – they don’t necessarily have to mean one’s biological sister, or a female child. But few would agree that those terms could be used to address a group of mixed-gender individuals without insulting the men in the group, or without humor.
Why this asymmetry? A likely answer is that masculine identities are seen as powerful. For this reason, referring to a woman as a “tomboy” has traditionally been less of an insult than referring to a man as a “sissy.”
In this way, the initial move to calling women “dude” was not perceived as insulting, and then it becomes used more and more widely. On the other hand, saying something like “hey girl” to a man might be insulting, although such use is common in LGBTQ+ communities.
But why is it that women can also take offense when addressed as “ladies”?
The issue came up this past spring when a male candidate for a school superintendent position used “ladies” in an email to address two women, including a committee member. The term, he was told, was a “microaggression” and “disrespectful”; his job offer was rescinded.
The use of “gentlemen” – should the two recipients have been men – would have unlikely made headlines.
The reason is the power asymmetry between “ladies” and “gentlemen.” Just think of the stereotypical image of the lady and the gentleman: The latter is generally strong and powerful, and the former is frivolous and weak, unless modified by an adjective, such as “Iron Lady” or “Strong Lady” – modifications that seem odd and almost redundant to use with “gentleman.”
The non objectionable ‘all’
Linguist Robin Lakoff argued in the early 1970s that the word “lady” was a actually a kind of euphemism, a more “polite” way of referring to a woman, and that “lady” reduces the power of the person referred to as a lady. “Gentleman” has none of that euphemistic and powerless connotation.
This could have factored in to the school board controversy. Many people today have only encountered the term “ladies” when it’s used in a way that focuses attention on the femininity of the person addressed – especially when the gender is irrelevant for other meaning purposes.
Of course “girls” could have been seen as even worse, since it implies immaturity as well.
If you’re afraid to use any address term at this point, you’re not alone. There are, however, ways around this. And if you’re worried about offending a group by using an inappropriate reference term, there’s always a somewhat bland – but largely inoffensive – workaround: “all.”