The Grammarphobia Blog

You guys and dolls

Q: How did the words “you guys” come to be used so ubiquitously for both sexes in the USA? Teachers address their students as “you guys.” Waiters address their customers as “you guys.” Girls address other girls as “you guys.” Is this something we just accept in today’s culture?

A: You’re right that many people now treat “guys” as sex-neutral. In fact, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines the plural “guys” (which it calls “informal”) as “persons of either sex.”

But this usage has been around for quite a while, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. The dictionary’s first published reference for the singular “guy” used for a woman is from a 1927 letter by Eugene O’Neill: “She is a ‘real guy.’ You’d like her immensely.” The first reference for the plural, cited in the journal American Speech, dates from 1932: “One girl to others: ‘Come on, guys.’”

As it turns out, the word “guy” has had many different guises since its earliest appearance in print in 1806, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. At first, it referred to an effigy of Guy Fawkes, who tried to kill King James I and blow up the British Parliament in 1605. It later came to mean a grotesque-looking person, a smart aleck, a carnival patron, and a man, among other things.

I’m reminded of a discussion about “you guys” a few years ago on the Linguist List forum. One contributor offered this comment by a male student to the women in a class on gender differences in language: “I’m glad I’m not a woman—you guys have too many issues to deal with!”

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