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Graphic by Harold Arthur McNeill

1,633 words

“Hi guys!” said the waitress.

She was speaking to me and my mother. The restaurant was the Olive Garden, and it was in the mid-1990s. I felt affronted on two levels. First, it was far too informal a way to refer to patrons; unforgivably familiar, really. Second, I was not there with one of my “guy” friends at all. I was there with my grey-haired, sixty-something year-old mother. This was the first time I noticed the term “guys” used in this way. Now you can’t get away from it. It’s everywhere – and every time I hear it I cringe.

I’ve even heard it at the Metropolitan Opera. Once, I was standing in line at the Met with a large number of other people. (It must have been for Wagner, as he tends to attract a big crowd, and I probably would not have been there otherwise.) One of the ushers, a squat, mixed-race looking man with an accent started trying to accelerate the process by saying “Move along, guys!”

I thought about waving him over and saying “This is the Metropolitan Opera. Not a bus station.” But nowadays you never know how somebody is going to react when you try to correct them. And who am I to correct? We’re all just “guys,” after all. I looked around at the other patrons, all the grey haired gentlemen in sport coats with their grey haired ladies in fox fur who had paid hundreds of dollars to be there. Their heads were slightly bowed. They showed no signs of being affronted by this epsilon semi-moron’s “guys.” But surely they had heard it. Didn’t they care?

Perhaps they’d just been through the security lines at the airport a few too many times. This is another place where you are likely to get “guyed.” “Take everything out of your pockets, guys!” “Take your laptops out of your bags, guys!” Did you just have a mental picture of a fat, surly black woman in a blue TSA blouse bellowing this? If so, we may have achieved psychic rapport. Those patches on their sleeves say “Department of Homeland Security” (which still sounds to me like something out of a dystopian TV movie about a future Amerika). I look at these women and always think of Sky Marshal Tehat Meru in the film Starship Troopers (who, in turn, always makes me think of Dr. Joycelyn Elders). Doesn’t it make you feel safer to be protected by an elite security force?

And, as many have pointed out, the real purpose of TSA screening is just to make us feel safer. It’s not likely to stop terrorists determined to hijack a plane. (And anyone with a little imagination can figure out how easy it would be to thwart these security procedures.) Of course there is yet another purpose to the airport security lines, and that is to make us docile and tractable. How? By robbing us of our dignity. By forcing us to queue up and partially disrobe and then submit ourselves to a scanner that reveals more than our ancestors saw on their wedding nights. All set to the tune of “Move along guys. Come on guys. Take off your shoes guys . . .” And sung by the sort of people who four decades ago were scrubbing out your grandma’s toilet.

“Guys” is all part of that process of reducing us, of leveling everyone down. This is as true of restaurants and American opera houses as it is of the TSA lines. In a way it’s nothing new: it’s a typical American thing. The tendency from the beginning of America has been to level everyone down; to erase distinctions. Conservatives who yearn for a 1950s where people wore ties onto airplanes and still called their co-workers Mister or Miss are just wishing they could live when the rot was less noticeable. America was founded on the rejection of natural distinctions between men. Of course, our Founding Fathers were saner men than those living today. They didn’t really believe that there were no distinctions between people. But all the rhetoric about equality eventually took its toll. The wrong sort of people started to believe it.

I’m reminded of what D. H. Lawrence says (in Studies in Classic American Literature) about Fenimore Cooper’s novel Homeward Bound. The plot concerns a genteel American family, the Effinghams, who are sailing back to America from their European vacation. On board the ship they meet “the ugly American” incarnate, the vulgar Septimus Dodge, who insists on making their acquaintance. Lawrence writes:

Now the aristocratic Effinghams, Homeward Bound from Europe to America, are at the mercy of Mr. Dodge: Septimus. He is their compatriot, so they may not disown him. Had they been English, of course, they would never once have let themselves become aware of his existence. But no. They are American democrats, and therefore, if Mr. Dodge marches up and says: “Mr. Effingham? Pleased to meet you, Mr. Effingham” – why, then Mr. Effingham is forced to reply: “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Dodge.” If he didn’t he would have the terrible hounds of democracy on his heels and at his throat, the moment he landed in the Land of the Free. An Englishman is free to continue unaware of the existence of a fellow-countryman, if the looks of that fellow-countryman are distasteful. But every American citizen is free to force his presence upon you, no matter how unwilling you may be.

Had Fenimore Cooper written this novel today, Septimus Dodge would have marched right up to the Effinghams and said “Hi guys!” And had Mr. Effingham made the mistake of proffering his first name, old Septimus would surely have made immediate use of it.

Ah, yes: the first name thing. I started noticing this in the 90s also. I would drive up to the teller window at the bank and, after depositing or cashing my check, the guy behind the glass would say “Can I do anything else for you today, Jef?” Or I’d hand my credit card to the clerk at the grocery store who’d swipe it and hand it back with a “Thank you, Jef.” It was as if they were daring me to correct them: “That’s Mr. Costello to you.” I didn’t. Why? Well, I suppose I didn’t want to create resentment in people I deal with regularly. But I suppose part of it, to be completely honest, is that I’m an American too.

I can’t resist quoting a couple of other lines from Lawrence’s magnificent essay: “What was the persecution of a haughty Lord or a marauding Baron or an inquisitorial Abbot compared to the persecution of a million Dodges?” And:

When America set out to destroy Kings and Lords and Masters, and the whole paraphernalia of European superiority, it pushed a pin right through its own body, and on that pin it still flaps and buzzes and twists in misery. The pin of democratic equality. Freedom. There’ll never be any life in America till you pull the pin out and admit natural inequality. Natural superiority, natural inferiority. Till such time, Americans just buzz round like various sorts of propellers, pinned down by their freedom and equality.

After being “guyed” and addressed as “Jef” by strangers countless times, I have begun, for the first time in my life, to long for old age. You see, I imagine that just about the only thing I’ll have to look forward to in old age is speaking my mind to people. Old people can get away with that. I still remember reading about how the old, palsied Katherine Hepburn walked up to some man chewing gum in a bookstore and said “Chew! Chew! Chew! That’s disgusting!” I’d like to be able to do that.

But a thought nags me. Perhaps by then I’ll be so beaten down I’ll be even meeker than I am now. Like those grey-haired men with their heads bowed, queuing up to be groped by a pock-marked Hispanic TSA screener. And perhaps by then the humiliation and indignities will have become far worse, far harder to take. Lately I keep thinking about all those Russian men who pickled their insides with vodka because life under communism was just a long process of chipping away their self-respect, day after day.

Heidegger was right about the metaphysical identity of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Both, at root, were founded upon a materialistic metaphysics. And both aimed at achieving a “classless society.” But the Soviets rewarded talent and intelligence. Western art and Western music were kept alive, publically subsidized and protected under Communist regimes. Meanwhile, we were slowly but surely abandoning everything that was noble and beautiful, because “the majority” had other uses for its money. In the end, it was American-style capitalism that was really the great leveler, not Communism. And the great corruptor.

We have succeeded where the Communists failed, and realized the classless society. Simply put: today we’ve got no class at all. The great Goddess of Democracy has decreed that we all put our pants on one leg at a time, and that we all break wind. Hallelujah! We are delivered from the tyranny of anyone thinking they are better than us. We are all “guys” now (the ladies included).

Let us look into the sunlit present and gaze upon what we are today, now that the mountains of men have been hewn down so as not to offend the valleys. We are processed meat, marinated in 500 channels, twittered, numbed by Paxil, then pre-sliced and fed into the slavering jaws of the great corporate Moloch. So, queue up guys. Take your shoes off, guys. Empty your pockets, guys.




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  1. me
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 4:19 am | Permalink

    Whatever happened to the word ‘gals’? Used to be ‘guys’ meant an informal group of young men/boys and ‘gals’ meant an informal group of young women/girls. Now it’s ‘guys’ for everything, formal or informal, male or female.

  2. Mimir's Well
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    I grew up in the midwest. “Guys” was always used when refering to a group of people, men or women. I can see how one might, just maybe, be put off by its informality. But in my mind it’s much better than, “move along, people!” “People” is too cold, almost condescending. Perhaps “move along, folks?” But for me, “folks” has come to represent everything that gimps, limps, waddles, or rolls (on a rascal or something) in toothless, obese, splendor in Walmart. I just don’t like to be counted among “the folk.” Call me an elitist if you will, so be it. Or just call me a guy.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      How about “Ladies and gentlemen” or less formally, “y’all”? “Guys” may just be another attempt to give English a second person plural pronoun, one glaring omission in our otherwise superb language.

      • Leo Yankevich
        Posted January 26, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        In western Pennsylvania, whence I hail, the second person plural is “yons” or “yins.” This, though, is the result of the organic evolution of the English language in those parts, settled first by the Scotts-Irish, whose manner of using the second-person plural was “you ones.”

        What has happened today on a broader linguistic plane, though, is indeed a cultural-marxist psycho-linguistic leveling down of everyone to the same level.

        We are all the same, according to this psycho-linguistic terror, regardless of ancestry, education, or merits.

      • Fibbles
        Posted January 26, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

        In Wisconsin they say “yous guys” for the second person plural. Plus, in the south, we have also evolved the second person hyperplural: “all y’all”.

      • Wagnerian
        Posted January 27, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

        People with New York/New Jersey accents also say “you guys” and to a lesser degree “youse” for the second person plural. There is a time and place for everything. The Olive Garden isn’t exactly a bastion of formality, but at the Met Opera I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect “ladies and gentlemen” as opposed to “guys”. Personally I switch between a thick regional accent and standard American English as the situation demands.

      • Yapyap
        Posted January 27, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, but this is excessive. Let’s agree on a simple language that we kobolds can understand.

  3. G_W_Hayduke
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Excellent quote from Eliot, Mr Costello. Another fine piece of writing.

  4. Sandy
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    The Fox’s Prophecy:

    “For swiftly o’er the level shore
    The waves of progress ride;
    The ancient landmarks one by one
    Shall sink beneath the tide.

    “Time-honoured creeds and ancient faith,
    The Altar and the Crown,
    Lordships hereditary right,
    Before that tide go down.

  5. Leo Yankevich
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Another great essay, Mr Costello! Bravo! I’ve noticed all emails from new-acquaintances now begin with “Hi, Bob” rather than “Dear Mr Robert Smith.”

    I use “Hi” only after the third or fourth email with a new acquaintance.

    • Posted January 26, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

      A coworker was once fired- one of the reasons being that he addressed very important people as “Hey guys” or “Hey there”- even in formal correspondence. This was someone with a Master’s Degree in Chemistry, by the way.

    • Sandy
      Posted January 27, 2012 at 12:04 am | Permalink

      Leo. Don’t you dare go back to addressing people properly and calling them Mr., for it took me years to get used to calling people by their first name!!!! I’m even on a first name basis with the boss – not that it does me much good!!!

  6. ipsofacto
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Thank God someone else recognizes that there’s more than semantics involved in this devolutionary process. Words do matter. I can remember when, in the South, the word “guy” was almost never heard and was taken as an insult when it was. This is completely aside from its degrading current application to women.

    Surely the nice people who make movies and TV programs delight at replacement of the offensive word “man” with the effeminate sounding sex-neutral word “guy”.

    We know that we’ve been deliberately corrupted by a thousand little pins. This one is a demonstrable model we can actually point to.

  7. Stronza
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Hey, fibbles, “yous” is properly spelled “youze”.

    This topic is the literary version of thereifixedit. After a few minutes on that site, I promise youze guys that all your tribulations will be mightily buffered.

  8. Posted January 26, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    “We have succeeded where the Communists failed, and realized the classless society. Simply put: today we’ve got no class at all. ”

    This is priceless.

    As if I wasn’t depressed enough already. Our great depression is our lives.

    • White Republican
      Posted January 27, 2012 at 12:01 am | Permalink

      The Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce wryly remarked that communism collapsed in the East because it triumphed in the West.

      The remark that America has a classless society is witty and penetrating, but it’s not entirely accurate. America has a system of “reverse selection” in which people rise on the basis of their disqualifications rather than their qualifications. One can say that the rubbish of American society is graded and sorted. But in the end, it’s a system in which there is rabble at the top and rabble at the bottom, there is no “above” and no “beneath.” As Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked, “without great men, great crowds of people in a nation are disgusting; like moving cheese, like hills of ants, or of fleas — the more, the worse.”

  9. ipsofacto
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    Jef Costello, if nothing else I thank you for addressing the kind of thing that even few WNs appreciate. By all means, let us launch a study into the murky world of linguistics. It is a much fowler thing than the average observer comprehends.

  10. Edgardus de la Vega
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Costello:

    This is an insightful article; for you have said (and implied) so much, yet so efficiently. I do say: correct the commonly coarse and vulgar masses when needed. I periodically correct those without fear whether they be a fellow European or someone from the Third World. Do not be afraid to tactically rectify broken-minded incivility. Respect must be recieved.

    There’s no time to wait for some kind of miraculous improvement. Language is a valuable weapon for victory (i.e. re-habilitation) on all local levels. It’s that simple.

  11. Joshua Braddock
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m a manager at a restaurant and I’ve made it clear not to use guys. Personally, I use Sirs or Ladies for people who are dressed well. If they aren’t as well dressed I usually just say “You’re ” without adding anything to the end. It’s not a fancy place at all, but I have let someone go, in part, because she was just too casual with the customers.

    • Henry
      Posted January 27, 2012 at 3:29 am | Permalink

      A good article and some good quotes. Here’s another from C.H. Douglas, no less.

      ‘’The tendency to argue from the particular to the general is a special case of the sequence from materialism to collectivism. If the universe is reduced to molecules, ultimately we can dispense with a catalogue and a dictionary; all things are the same thing, and all words are just sounds – molecules in motion. That is the ultimate meaning of equality – having no quality.’’

      C. H Douglas, ‘The Brief for the Prosecution’ [preface].

    • Michael Bell
      Posted January 27, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      I’m no doubt an elitist, especially when it comes to judging people based on their linguistic skills. For example, someone who always uses the F word in every sentence, as if it is some kind of crucial filler, is automatically relegated to an inferior, if not entirely sub-human status, in my mind (be they Black or White). That is why it pains me that I never really noticed the significance of the word “guy.” It may be because people of my generation (I’m 25) have been raised on using it. It was just seen as the “cooler” word to use. As such, I have used it while speaking to customers at a restaurant I once worked in, and even today, I use it when referring to a classroom of students. If I’m talking to a group of friends, even if its co-ed, “guy” comes out almost involuntarily.

      Thanks for highlighting a habit I shall have to break, and reasons why I ought to, Mr. Costello.

  12. Petronius
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 4:04 am | Permalink

    I am all with Jef in this one. In my homeland Germany much the same shift happened, when people increasingly dropped our T-V distinction “Du” and “Sie”, and started using first names American style (Internet customs are different).

    Personally, if I am forced into that I am much colder and uptight with people, and warmer and more relaxed if I am not addressed by my first name and the “Du” (akin to “Jef” vs. “Mr. Costello”). It feels as if one is at your skin, as if you have no space to breathe. It is worst, when your boss at work adresses you this way – hierarchy and power relations do not vanish because you act like it.

    I love old French Nouvelle Vague movies, when the hero beds a woman, and still says “vous” and “Madame” or “Mademoiselle” the next morning. Also, the wonderful “Fräulein” (Miss, Mademoiselle) is dying out, but so is the type it refers to. So much tension, subtleness and distinction has faded by the introduction of these equalizing standards.

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