Words matter, so I need a new one

I need a new word. Maybe you can help.

This all started when I read about the bias-free language guide posted on the University of New Hampshire’s website. The president of the UNH, it seems, was concerned about what the guide says about the word “Americans.”

But it was another change suggested in the guide that had me personally worried.

(And it’s not the suggestion about alternatives for terms like “senior citizen.” Although I did tell my nephews that even though I quality for the senior discount at Arby’s, if they ever call me a “person of advanced age” I’ll deck them.)

What got me thinking is the suggestion that people should use “y’all” instead of “guys.”

I preach language sensitivity and avoiding stereotypes to my students. There’s no need to put a gender to a job title — firefighter is an excellent replacement for the outdated “fireman,” police officer is a gender-neutral term, supervisor can replace “foreman.”

When I’m editing, I’m always aware of words that are gender-specific when they don’t need to be. But when I’m sitting at home talking, I often find myself using the word “guys” in a gender-neutral way. As in “do you guys want to get a pizza” when there are men and women in the group. Or “keep it down, guys, you’ll wake the neighbors” — even when the gathering is all female.

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 6.41.06 PMThere’s certainly a long history behind the use of “guys” in that manner. And it’s in the dictionary, so there’s that.

The alternatives just don’t cut it for me. Suggesting in New Hampshire that “y’all” is an alternative for “guys” just seems wrong. I’m not from New Hampshire, but I’m also not from the south. So y’all doesn’t roll off my tongue.

And “folks”? That just seems too folksy. “People” or “you people.” That strikes me as something the nun with the pointer in fourth-grade might have said.

(By the way, in 2010, Erin McKean wrote about this issue in the Boston Globe and decided there were bigger battles to fight.)

But I also know that words matter. So I need a new one to use for a group of people in a casual setting.

See, it’s sometimes easier to do gender-neutral editing of the written word then it is to edit your thoughts before you say them.

I’m not knocking being more aware of the words you use. I’m just acknowledging that it’s something  you need to think about. And train yourself to be sensitive to in all situations.

If you have a good substitute, let me know, and I’ll practice using it.

Oh, and P.S.: When it comes to age, isn’t it better to be specific than to push people into labels liked middle aged.

And P.P.S.: I’m cool with the singular they. But you can often recast the sentence.

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