Guys and gals in harm's way?

A woman on the radio the other day - a mother keeping vigil with Cindy Sheehan, or opposing those keeping vigil, or supporting our troops while no longer supporting the war, or whatever - had made a comment about "supporting our boys and women" in Iraq. It was one of those sound bites that enter into consciousness with a distinct clunk.

Our boys and women? Huh? This isn't the war your father fought in, I tell myself. There was a little hesitation in the woman's voice before she said "women," as if she realized it was going to be awkward to couple the words that way.

It was one of those moments that crystallize a social change - women are playing a bigger role in the war in Iraq than in any previous war - while also epitomizing how our language has adapted imperfectly to the new social-military reality. It also shows how hard it can be to balance gender terms evenly.

"Boys" are, literally, male children. "Girls" are female children. Nowadays, "boys" and "girls" can also serve as informal designations for single-sex groups with upper age limits that range, shall we say, from flexible to nonexistent. "The Sunshine Boys," or "The Golden Girls."

But link the two - "boys and girls" - and you're immediately back among the 10-and-under crowd. To call our warriors "our boys" enfolds them in a blanket of tenderness and lets us imagine war to be some kind of football game. For the woman on the radio to have referred to troops in Iraq as "our boys and girls," however, would have been laughable, in a context where laughter wasn't called for.

"Our men and women" would have been a perfectly suitable locution. But "our sons and daughters" is probably the phrase she was groping for. It has the same gender equivalence as "men and women," with much more emotive richness. It suggests a kind of parental tenderness without denying the adulthood of the individual troops.

Indeed this is the phrase that has been much used. A columnist in California wrote not long ago, "The commander-in-chief placed our sons and daughters in the midst of another country's civil war because he lacks an understanding of history, diplomacy, and other skills possessed by qualified statesmen."

Equally impassioned on the other side of the debate, a columnist in Springfield, Mo., said, "I do not believe that you can support our troops and not support our president or the war in Iraq. By not supporting the war on terror, we are allowing our sons and daughters who have given the ultimate sacrifice to have died in vain."

But what if we want to be a little more informal - which is part of what the "our boys" locution accomplishes? "Our guys" would do, and, in the plural, "guys" is a de facto unisex term nowadays. But note that there's no real female equivalent, in American English at least, for the singular "guy." But speakers and writers like the ones quoted above presumably want to be inclusive of women in the armed services.

There are plenty of colloquialisms for "female person": They start with terms like "chick" and go on through terms you aren't going to read in this space. What they have in common is that they define women as "the other," in a way that terms like "guy" or "bloke" do not define men. There's "gal," which isn't to everyone's taste. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as a "vulgar or dial. pronunciation of 'girl.' " (The Compact Oxford is somewhat more forgiving, defining it as an informal term for "girl or young woman.") "Gal Friday," or "girl Friday," has worked its way into the language as a takeoff on "Man Friday," itself a phrase of dubious political correctness. Nowadays "his girl Friday" may well be the executive vice president for strategy and human resources. But why was it ever OK for the counterpart of "man" to be "gal," anyway?

This appears with links at: http://weblogs.csmonitor.com /verbal_energy

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