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Are you at risk for using the word ‘ladies?’ Or other, even worse, words? This diagnostic quiz may help.

Is it OK to call someone a “lady doctor?” Should you address the governor and lieutenant governor as “girls?” Is “babe” always wrong in a work setting?

Globe graphicRyan Huddle

Now that the word “ladies” has become a firing offense — or at least a not-hiring offense — there’s understandably fear and confusion. What words are OK to use when addressing women in a professional or business setting? Especially if you’re a man.

As everyone from local officials to Fox News viewers now knows, a leading candidate for superintendent of Easthampton Public Schools claimed that he lost his job offer for using “ladies” in an e-mail to the school committee chairwoman and committee’s executive assistant.

The candidate, Vito Perrone, grew up considering the term a sign of “respect,” he told the Daily Hampshire Gazette, but to the women, it reportedly hit like a micro-aggression.


Never mind that some people consider the whole affair woke overreach, or suspect the “ladies” thing is cover for some other issue. Perhaps he said “hahahaha” when a “LOL” was called for.

On Thursday, as the ladies issue continued to divide the country, the school committee chairwoman spoke out for the first time. “The general feeling was that there were too many concerns before we had even begun negotiating the rest of the contract and alarm bells were going off,” she said in a statement e-mailed to the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Whatever the real reason, diversity and inclusion experts told the Globe that the word has a long and complicated history, and can have negative connotations.

In other words, Perrone lost them at “hello.”

Considering the press “ladies” has gotten, it seems likely that many who might have been at risk of using it will steer clear. But other words lurk. It’s a minefield out there. As this incident has shown, what sounds to one person like a term of respect can feel like a catcall to another.


So before you compose that next e-mail, or even open your mouth, maybe consult this educational quiz to see how your words will land.

You are at a medical appointment, and in speaking about your doctor, who is a woman, with the appointment scheduler, how should you refer to her?

a. Dr. Smith said I should see her again in a month.

b. The lady doctor is making me come back.

c. The nurse, I mean the doctor who is a girl, is on my back to make a follow-up appointment.

d. Next time can I see a real doctor?

You are a 30-year-old waiter, and male. You are waiting on a table of 50–something friends. Which is the appropriate way to take drink orders?

a. What can I get you to drink?

b. You broads look like you enjoy tossing a few back.

c. I’m going to need to see some ID (said while snickering).

d. You ladies are already so hysterical I’m not sure I should serve you.

You are writing to Governor Maura Healey and Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll. The appropriate salutation is:

a. Dear Governor Healey and Lieutenant Governor Driscoll,

b. Hey, Maura and Kimmy,

c. Girls ...

d. You two should smile more,

You’re at a new-employee orientation and the company has assembled a panel to give the recent hires an overview. You want to direct a question to the vice president of marketing, who is a woman. When it’s your turn at the microphone, you say:


a. I have a question for the vice president of marketing.

b. This is for the babe in the blue dress.

c. Ma’am, I’m sorry I didn’t get your name, but …

d. Are you the person to talk to in marketing, or should I speak to your boss?

You’re applying for a job and are corresponding with two women. You address them as … oh, wait, we already know what happened here...

Meanwhile, even as “ladies’” continues its slide to the dark side, its counterpart is also falling on hard times. As the novelist Rebecca Makkai wrote on Twitter mere days before the ladies scandal:

“I think one of the most interesting things happening in English is the corrosion of the word ‘gentleman.’ It’s mostly used now in sentences like “There’s a gentleman in the lobby exposing himself.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we hardly knew ye.

Beth Teitell can be reached at Follow her @bethteitell.