Hey You Guys — Some Thoughts on the Great Equalizer

By Martha Weinman Lear

Published March 07, 2003, issue of March 07, 2003.
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So my question is, How would you say “you guys” in Yiddish?

I don’t mean literally. I mean in that sociologically significant way that it has spread like a fog across the linguistic landscape from coast to coast. Usually, Yiddish can do anything idiomatic English can do, only better. But this one stumps me.

An example: My partner and I are sitting in a restaurant when a young waiter approaches. “What can I get you guys?” he says.

True, Albert has a cute gray goatee, but I am beardless and patently female. You guys?

“Never mind,” Albert says. “It’s just one of those trendy usages. I’m a guy; you’re a guy. The whole world these days is guys.”

Right. My daughter calls. “How are you guys doing?” she asks.

Chic, of course, happens in language as everywhere else. “Dissing” is still deeply chic, as is “so not” (as in “She is so not my best friend”). “Famously” has had a long run, and “whatever,” signifying the Olympus of ennui — example: “Do you like classical music?” “Whatever.” — is still famously with us.

But these are pseudo-cool affectations. “You guys” is different, the great equalizer. It levels the playing field in a peculiar way. When the waiter says, “What can I get you guys?” he is also saying, consciously or not, “Don’t for a minute think you have more status than I, even though I am serving you.” My daughter is saying, “I have no edge over you with my youth, nor you over me with your age. One age is as good as another.” (She may also be saying, “I no longer have to heed you, but that’s another story.”)

And they are saying that one sex is as good as another, too. Recently I was on a railroad car in Spain. Nearby sat an American school tour group. A boy was reading, and several girls were chatting. When the chatter became loud, he looked up from his book and said, “Will you guys please cool it!”

Clearly, it reflects the ease that kids of both sexes seem to feel with each other today. But what struck me was how different this ease is from the way people my age behaved at their age. In the presence of boys, the only way my friends and I knew how to be was boy-girl: wear our pointy bras and play our coy hard-to-get games, and never, in mixed company, be our own true selves. Long before we had sex, we were transformed by its tensions.

“You guys” is not just a pair of words, after all. It is a cultural icon. It is eloquent shorthand for expressing how we feel in this time and place about gender, age, authority, social status and a great deal more.

I like it, and I don’t. Democracy in action is good stuff, but this may be too much of the good stuff. When I walk into a restaurant, I don’t want to be a guy. It makes me feel dissed. I have lived long and worked hard and feel I deserve the respect of a “Ma’am.”

Agreed, guys? And, by the by, how would you say “dissed” in Yiddish?

Martha Weinman Lear, the author of “Heartsounds,” is a former staff writer and editor for The New York Times Magazine. She last appeared in these pages July 5, 2002, writing about overhearing the word “bobeh-meiseh.”






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