Martin Nash is fine with referring to the guys, the lads, the fellas, but isn’t sure how to refer to the ladies.
Editor’s note: For the benefit of our American readers, we should clarify that Mr. Nash is referring here to British English, which actually suffers from less of the problem he describes than American English.
Today I am looking for help. I need words.
When writing about men and women I obviously find myself referring to people of a given sex by a collective term such as “men” or “women”. In order to avoid my writing sounding repetitive I try and use other words that mean the same.
In the case of men I find this easy and have a bunch of the synonyms at my disposal: Men, males, blokes, chaps, gents, guys, fellas, dudes, lads, boys.
To my knowledge none of these are considered offensive (please let me know if I am wrong) to anybody.
My problem comes when trying to find words for women. There are certainly several such terms but many are contraindicated for use as they are considered patronising, belittling or demeaning.
Sure we have the basics—women, ladies, females—but in a lengthy article even these can get repetitive. So what are my alternatives?
Chicks or birds? As a younger fella I used these words as standard and to be honest never received a complaint (my ex told me it’s because I didn’t sound patronising the way I said it), but I can see how animal comparisons can be taken as an insult and no longer use these terms (I will sidestep usage of “hen night”). Girls or lasses? Again both terms I have used in the past but have read that referring to women in the diminutive is offensive to some and so I cut it out.
At the moment I am just thinking about writing, but this comes into play in spoken word too. For some reason to me it sounds better greeting a group of women as “Hi girls” rather that “Hi ladies”. Not sure why, maybe something I saw on TV or read in a book, but for now I just use the generic “Hi”. As an aside, my mother is in approaching her 70s and still has “lunch with the girls”. She doesn’t seem to use the term demeaningly.
Secondly I need informal terms of address for people I meet in daily life without needing to know their names. When I am talking to a man i don’t know I can call him mate, or pal, or buddy, or chap, geezer, fella, dude or even John (which I find useful as a way of finding out their name when they correct me).
But my old forms of address for women I now try to avoid in most cases as I know they can offend. These would be words like darling, flower, petal and love (apropos of nothing, i got asked “giz a chip love?” by a girl of around 12 the other day, made me smile). Should I use the same forms of address as I do for men? I have a colleague who calls all female colleagues mate and for him it sounds natural, but I just don’t feel it rolls off my tongue very well.
So, please can someone help me with alternative informal words for these situations? The thesaurus is most un-obliging in this matter.
This article originally appeared at Blabberjockey.
Photo—Oxford English Dictionary, courtesy Noah Brand