Women, Ladies Or Girls? What’s In A Name?

Group of Women (small) 90x110.jpg The English language is rich in many respects; but it’s inadequate, perhaps for very important reasons, when it comes to naming and addressing mature female people. For the foreseeable future polite society will probably continue to constrain women by the words we may properly use here. Men can also be ‘Chaps’ and ‘Guys’, whilst for women until now there’s been no equivalent set of terms…. which may explain why younger people of both sexes, often themselves more consciously gender-equal, have begun to claim these names, Guys and Chaps, as inclusive terms for everyone.
Names meaning everything and nothing. The old adage about ‘sticks and stones’ but ‘names can hurt me never…’ has some truth, but it’s not the whole story.
So here’s a question: how does one properly address a group of mature female people whom one may not know well?
Women, Ladies of Girls?
Is there any other term than these which one can use for such a group as the one above?
* ‘Women’ is a strange form of spoken or formal address; the word refers to a type of person, but it’s not really a collective noun in the formal naming sense;
* ‘Ladies’ is a term which offends some because of its patriarchal and other class overtones (though the Concise Oxford notes it is a “courteous or formal synonym for ‘women'”); and
* ‘Girls’ is obviously not appropriate as a formal term for any group of female people over the age of about 16.
So what are we women to be addressed as? Frankly, I don’t know.
Forms of address for men
This is easier! Men can be ‘Gentlemen’ (formal); ‘Chaps’ (the friendly noun for a group of posibly more mature men), ‘Guys’ (friendly, for younger men, or for Chaps with a more modern outlook?) or even ‘Boys’ (though usually only as a form of gentle teasing between peers, or in families).
Rarely do we hear complaint about any of these collective nouns. There’s something for everyone – at least as long as you’re male. But then of course men don’t feel marginalised or at risk of being demeaned by terms of reference in the same way as some women may, not infrequently with reason.
The new Chaps ‘n’ Guys
Talking with younger women and men, there seems to be a move towards an understanding that Chaps and Guys can be male or female. ‘Okay you guys..’ is the start of a sentence which can be addressed to anyone (collectively) by anyone, male or female, in informal situations. And ‘Chaps’ has become a term which, again informally, refers to any group of people.
Perhaps this is the way forward. In formal situations there seems little option but to use the ‘polite’ forms ‘Ladies and Gentlemen…’; this doesn’t always sound good, but how else does one start? At least it’s equally constraining for both men and women.
Hermaphrodising the naming
Informally perhaps we women can move towards a more hermaphrodite nomenclature. We’re ‘Guys’ and ‘Chaps’ when it suts. This doesn’t, to me at least, feel like the awful legal precedent of announcing that ‘all references to ‘he’ shall also apply to ‘she’…’ and so on. That legal precedent was made by men. We, women, are choosing to be, and to call ourselves, ‘You Guys’ in a rather different way.
The ultimate test for person-to-person, face-to-face, naming has to be that person’s choice, and the type of context in which the choice is made. We can decide in the general sense to use what collective nouns we like, but respect for the individual and his / her ease should take prioity over our own preference when we address another.
If we want real communication, putting the other at ease is important; and if that includes using formal terms because these are the only ones we have, in my book, so be it. Convention, however inperfect, help us here.
Hallo people!
Nonetheless, the English language does leave us a bit high and dry, with ‘he’ and ‘she’ as the third person nouns, and no ungendered noun for individuals except for the words ‘person’ and ‘people’. Maybe we women willl have arrived when the formal way to address groups of either / mixed gender is to begin, ‘Good morning people…’.
But that may take a while, Guys.

Posted on January 10, 2006, in Arts, Culture And Heritage, Equality, Diversity And Inclusion, The Journal. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Have you come across the pronoun ‘ze’. It is one of the accepted gender neutral pronouns used within and outside of the transgender community when ‘he’ or ‘she’ are not adequate to describe a person’s sex and/or gender identity.
    Useful in groups which have trans- members!
    [Many thanks for this, Emily. Great idea!

  2. Women want to have it both ways. Here in the USA, they call each other “girls” when they want to feel young and girlish, but God forbid a man should use this word.
    I agree that “lady” or “ladies” is a sign of respect, but some women feel demeaned or marginalized by this. The comedian Jay Leno uses “women” and “guys” in his monologues, but not “girls” or “men.”
    I have resigned myself to using “gentlemen” and “women”, although I will occasionally use “ladies” when it applies to women over the age of approx. 65 years, because they understand it is a sign of respect for them.

  3. Having bridled at references to ‘ladies’ voices’ as not being fit to sing Choral Evensong (OK it was on the Radio 3 message board) I was quite surprised to read a post from a woman who said the she’d always been taught that you never used ‘lady’ to refer to one of your own (upper-middle) class – they were ‘women’, and ‘lady’ was reserved for pleasant members of the lower orders -tea-ladies, charladies, that sort of thing.

  4. er, Good morning everyone? Good afternoon folks? Welcome one and all? Not really a problem.
    I wouldn’t dream of addressing a roomful of men as “gentlemen” or “chaps” or …. Under what circumstances is it necessary to refer to the gender of the individuals in your audience / meeting?
    I have however been known to use “boys and girls” to a fairly mature audience…

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