Pet peeves, Part 2: The cultural decline of language

I’ve made my living as a copy editor for several decades now, and it wasn’t very long ago that grammar was important to the print media.

Not so much anymore, though. The language has evolved, or declined, depending on how you look at it. A word like “likely,” for example, which means “probable,”is now used widely to mean “probably,” as in So and so will likely to do this or that.

Then there is the term “general consensus,” used widely even though the “general” part of it is redundant.

Or “exact replica,” when the “exact” part is redundant.

There are plenty more examples, of course. I realize that most people don’t really care all that much about grammar anymore or even spelling, especially in this age of texting and tweeting brevity.

But the phrase that has been really been bugging me recently is “Hey, guys” — when used as a generic term to address women.

It’s not just men who do it: I hear women use the term when addressing other women as well, including feminists who decry the patriarchy in so many ways but have no problem with masculinizing women — whether they like it or not — by referring to them as “guys.”

Imagine if a woman addressed a group of guys as “Hey, gals . . .”

The copy editor in me would never use the “hey, guys” term to refer to women, either in print or in daily conversation (yes, our nitpicking copy editing ways carry over into our daily lives, too). Nor would the feminist sympathizer in me use it, either.

What’s wrong with “Hey, folks”?

Of course, I have done some research on this, and there are others who feel the same way I do about it. And there are some who point out that you can never use the “guy” word for women in the third person, as in “I saw this one guy driving and she was out of control” — an example cited by Gayle Laakmann McDowell in response to a short post about it on a site called Quora.

As Gayle points out: “Language is very much culturally dependent. (Her) answer applies to my age/regional/socio-economic group and many others within the US, but might not apply to others.”

Still, when it comes to the word “guys” being applied to women, I’ve heard people young, old and in-between use it.

But Gayle’s point about age groups certainly applies to the use of another term that makes me feel uncomfortable: the word “queer.”

There was time when referring to a gay man or woman as “a queer” was very derogatory and discriminatory. Today, many young people have “reclaimed” the word and use it in reference to themselves and to all members of the LGBTQ community — whether those members like it or not.

Still, as an editor for a mainstream media publication, could you imagine the uproar if I used the term in an article or a headline as a substitute for “gay” or “trans” or “bisexual”? Or even “LGBT,” instead referring to them as “queer folks”? (And then shouted out to them, “Hey, guys!”)

Sigh . . .

OK, I know these are not issues that appear on most people’s radar screens.

But I thought I would mention it, being the nitpicking copy editor I was trained to be.

File this under: Lament for the English language.

— Jillian

2 thoughts on “Pet peeves, Part 2: The cultural decline of language

  1. If I charged $0.25 for every spelling mistake I found on the net or in print media I would be wealthy in a year. God do I EVER agree with you

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  2. I wonder if this is the case for media + print in the home of all this, England(Britain,UK)? Or is this a NA lament? However, given that there probably are none teaching “English” in the system in this day and age, it is therefore in decline definitely

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