Back in the day we just weren’t aware, or simply didn’t care. The fact is that words we commonly used often were male centric, i.e. privileged men, and tended to ignore or diminish women. But women began to take notice, increasingly took offense at the linguistic tilt all too apparent. So many words long embedded in the language were cited as examples. There were, of course, freshmen, chairmen, firemen, postmen (and mailmen), Congressmen, clergymen, weathermen, repairmen, handymen, countermen, fishermen, etc. A person on the lam often triggered a manhunt. The common man and everyman stood for us all, and most understood, if not everyone appreciated. the middleman. To be assertive was to man up and earn praise for being a “stand-up guy.” Few doubted the advantages an “old boy network” could confer or in having a reliable “right-hand man.” Mankind, it was understood, was intended to include everyone and on the same basis since “all men are created equal.” Having revealed the problem, what changes have come about?
• It won’t do any longer to refer to Mr. and Mrs. Robert Cutler. Mrs. Cutler has a given name which should be acknowledged. Ms. has become widely acceptable.
• Be careful about using the word “girls” when referring to women. “Gals” is not an improvement. It would also be prudent to drop or severely limit the use of “little woman”, “bride,” “ladies first,” even “lady,” and surely “better half.”
• You’d best purge your vocabulary of such words as sweetie, honey-bun, bossy, feisty, sassy, bubbly, cute, in connection with women. Also, be cautious when applying diva, drama queen, prima donna, or characterizing female conversation as gossip or gabbing. Avoid referring to women’s utterances as whiny or shrill.
• Resist criticizing assertive women as “pushy” when the term strong is commonly used to describe similar behavior in men.
• Don’t be surprised when past accounts of women are presented as “herstory” or when high achieving women are praised as “sheroes.”
• Don’t express puzzlement when names such as Addison, Harper, Carson, Brett, Kelly, Val, Alex, Blake, Jayden, Dana, Drew, etc., are now given to the girls and boys.
The verdict is still pending on using “guys” when addressing a mixed group. Best advice: be careful out there. Verbal land mines can ignite when you least expect them (though manicurists are typically women).