Word Weirdness: Hey, Lady!

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There are lots of things you can yell at a guy to let him know he’s getting a flat tire. “Hey, buddy,” “Hey, bro,” “Hey, dude,” “Hey, mister,” “Hey, Mac,” “Hey, man,” and the ever-popular “Hey, you!”

But there is only one thing you can reasonably yell to a woman in the same situation: “Hey, lady!” “Hey, you” or “Hey, woman!” just seems rude. You can’t even call her “miss” or “ma’am” without kicking in the instant, if insincere, politeness of “Excuse me.” And you can’t put casual terms for women after “Hey!” (sis, sister (unless she’s a nun), girl, gal, doll (unless you’re a trucker), or chick (unless you’re stuck in the 60s)). I suppose you could yell, “Hey, person of the female gender!” but by then you’d be past her and unable to get your message across.

There’s a similar problem referring to women in a group. “Ladies” is virtually the only choice. (“Here are your appetizers, ladies.”) Women can sometimes get away with calling other women “girls” or “gals” if they’re being informal, but if men try this, it sounds patronizing, because it is.

And mixed groups! What is one to do then? Once I was teaching a college class. One student called me out – and rightly so – because I referred to them as “guys.”

But what were the alternatives? “Guys and gals”? (Too casual.) “You-all” or “Y’all”? (This was in Ohio, not Texas.) “You folks”? (Too folksy.) “Dudes and dudettes”? (Really?) “Ladies and gentlemen”? (I was a teacher, not a ringmaster, though it felt like it at times.) “Class”? (Too Sister Mary Elephant.) “Students”? (Too juvenile to my ears.) “People”? (Well, maybe. I think that’s what I ended up with.)

Of course, I could have just used “you,” meaning the second person plural, but it being the first semester, I hadn’t taught them that yet.

I had solved the levels of address problem by referring to the class members as Mr. Jones and Ms. Smith, since I wished to be addressed as “Ms. Coburn.” (I briefly considered asking to be called “sensei,” but that would still have left me with the problem of what to call them.) The students were amused because they didn’t learn each other’s first names and had to use Mr. Jones and Ms. Smith when they crossed paths in the library or cafeteria.

I just looked up what the collective nouns are for men and women, to see whether they’d be any help. (Collective nouns are those oddball phrases like “a murder of crows” or “a brood of hens.” Many people I know are disappointed that there is no “squad of squids.”)

Boringly enough, the collective nouns for persons are “a band of men” and “a bond of women,” both of which imply that they stick together. Other groups have much more evocative names like “a neverthriving of jugglers,” “a threatening of courtiers,” and “a fixie of hipsters.”

I’m jealous.

At the least we could be “a confusion of people” or “a division of citizens” or “a passel of persons.” A “brawl of men.” A “nest of women.” But then we’d need collective nouns for LGBTQIA+ people and there would be no end to it, what with the proliferation of new terms for sexual identities that seem to crop up every day. (I still don’t get the difference between gender-fluid and pansexual.)

Let’s just stick with “a commonality of humans.”

 

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