How gender-neutral is ‘guys’, you guys?

Guy has followed an improbable path from its origin as an eponym for Guy Fawkes to its common and versatile use today. It’s increasingly popular as a term to address mixed-gender and all-female groups, but not everyone welcomes this development (see video below). So how gender-neutral is guys, you guys?

Instead of a simple answer there’s a spectrum that depends heavily on context. But we can draw some general conclusions, as I did in an article at Slate’s Lexicon Valley on guy(s) as a gender-neutral word:

Addresses like Hey guys or just Guys are widely felt to be gender-neutral; set phrases like good guys are less so; usages like those guys shift even more subtly male-ward; singular a guy and the guy are markedly male. Then we have the likes of a guy thing and guys and dolls, which explicitly contrast guys to the female gender (and belie the fact that many people identify as neither).

Even among the more male uses of guy – singular rather than plural, and in reference rather than address – change is occurring. My article shares intriguing examples of this shift, from both children and adults, then ponders the future of gender-neutral guy(s).

the goonies chunk hey you guys

Guy is absent from Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Words and Women, their Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing (except for a passing mention that it’s ‘being debated’), and Jane Mills’s Womanwords: perhaps strangely so, given its profile. In 1980 George Jochnowitz called the shift in the use of guys ‘extraordinary’ and later described it as ‘the only major change in the pronominal system of English . . . since the loss of thou and thee four centuries ago’ (h/t Manu Saunders).

The ‘American’ uses of guys and you guys are prevalent in Ireland but must compete with other options. Irish English lads has a similar pattern to guys, often used to address mixed groups. (There’s also Ah lads as an expression of general discombobulation.) And of course we have ye, youse, yiz and the like. But guys is holding its own.

For more on gender-neutral guys, see Julia Evans’s survey, discussions at Language Log, Language Hat, and language: a feminist guide, and further links in my Slate article.

38 Responses to How gender-neutral is ‘guys’, you guys?

  1. I think that it is interesting that Jack Benny often used the term “fellas” in a gender-neutral all-inclusive manner to collectively address the other characters on his radio show, even though that group contained Mary Livingstone.

    If “fellas” can be gender-neutral in the 1940s, then “guys” certainly can be gender-neutral seventy years later.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Much of the history of fellow is tied to that of man, but the word was originally gender-neutral. The OED, whose earliest citation is from exactly 1000 years ago, defines this sense thus:

      One who shares with another in a possession, official dignity, or in the performance of any work; a partner, colleague, co-worker. Also, one united with another in a covenant for common ends; an ally.

      Various senses of the word that arose in later centuries were also effectively gender-neutral. So Jack Benny’s use of the word could be said to revive the word’s equitable vintage rather than being innovative.

  2. Harry Lake says:

    I was amazed on the first evening of my only trip to the US to hear our hostess (age about 60) use ‘guys’ for all four of us, two couples. That was in 1978. More recently I’ve noticed the same thing happening in Dutch, with ‘jongens’ and I suspect it may also exist in German.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Guys as a gender-neutral vocative seems to be long-established in vernacular US English (if less so where y’all, yinz or other forms are favoured); I imagine it spread to other regions from there. That’s interesting about Dutch. I must look into other languages’ equivalents when I get a chance.

    • The German equivalent of “jongens” would be “jungs”, which is definitely male. I can’t concieve of any German person using “jungs” when talking to a group of mixed genders, unless they were more than merely completely drunk. They would say “leute”, meaning, “people”, or “folks”, as in “leute, ich bin voll besoffen.” (folks, I’m totally drunk.)

      • Another alternative for addressing mixed groups in Dutch is ‘luitjes’ and it is (was?) used in the Belgian children’s programme Kabouter Plop a great deal, so I’m not sure if it is really a Flemish word or perhaps from the Limburg region, and it is often used somewhat humorously. It had never occurred to me before that it is more than likely a variation on German ‘Leute’.

        • John Cowan says:

          It is indeed, if I am deciphering the WNT correctly. Luitjes says “see lui“, which says “see lieden“, whose etymology ties it to Leute and Old English leode, now obsolete, replaced by French-derived people. A more distant relative is Russian lyudi.

          • Stan Carey says:

            Thanks for this very interesting exchange, leute. I find people occasionally useful for this purpose, but I never got on board with the abbreviations derived from it, like peeps (and tweeps on Twitter). Too cutesy or something.

  3. cynthiamvoss says:

    This is interesting, I wonder if and how it will change. I’m from New Jersey, where “guys” is used for a group of people. I grew up with my mom calling my sisters and me “guys.” I lived in Tennessee for a little while, where “y’all” is preferred, I would get complaints if I said “guys” to a group of ladies. I didn’t think twice about saying “OK, guys, where should we go for lunch?” But my friends and co-workers would often remind me that they weren’t guys, and if there were some men in the room they wouldn’t say anything about being called guys as a group. I would have loved to use “y’all,” but there’s nothing worse than a Northerner saying y’all! :-)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for these insights, Cynthia. I’d love if y’all was available in my dialect, but I can’t really use it unselfconsciously! With all the options in Ireland, though, I have no cause to complain. As for guys, I think it’s worth considering the context and audience before assuming it’s fine, because a significant proportion of people dislike it. It will be interesting to track this in the years ahead, as you say.

  4. Chips Mackinolty says:

    In Aboriginal English, as well as Kriol, in northern Australia the collective “you mob” and “us mob” (yumob and wemob) is completely gender neutral.

    • Stan Carey says:

      And, if I understand it correctly, fully grammaticalised too. I wonder how it compares to (chiefly) UK English you lot, which it resembles.

      • Chips Mackinolty says:

        Yes indeed. Not sure about “you lot” … I’d always sensed that as a slightly combative, derogatory term. Eg “and as for you lot”, but may be wrong

  5. I can’t stand it when servers call me and my date or my mother “you guys”. Call me old-fashioned, call me a sexist, but a woman is not a “guy” as far as I’m concerned.

    • Stan Carey says:

      You’re fully entitled to dislike it. When I was researching the article several people told me they’d been told off by a manager for using you guys to address customers in a restaurant. Prohibition is probably not the norm, though.

    • Jedd Cole says:

      I used to work as a server, and the question of “guys” as a way to address a mixed group is a pretty interesting one. On your feet, running around, it can be hard to come up with the right words of address for every table on the spot! I think as time went on I made a conscious decision to speak less and less… may have had to do with not liking my job that much.

      • Stan Carey says:

        It’s a tricky one. You guys comes so naturally (to many people, much of the time) that it can take real effort to stem it: and then a replacement is needed, and sometimes there aren’t any persuasive or appropriate candidates.

        • Jedd Cole says:

          It certainly came natural to me. I remember using it in front of an all-female table. It might not stand out so much normally, but it certainly did to me that time.

  6. John Cowan says:

    There’s an interesting parallel in the French words for ‘they’, of which there are two: ils (masculine) and elles (feminine), the obvious plurals of ‘he’ and ‘she’. The standard convention is to use ils for all groups unless they are known to be all-female, in which case they are called elles. However, in legal contexts groups are often referred to formally as les personnes (who something or other), which is a feminine noun demanding elles for agreement. But it rarely lasts: within a sentence or two, even the most formal documents are typically back to ils.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I wasn’t aware of the gendered nuances in legal contexts, John. In school we absorbed the generic ils without fuss, but in retrospect it highlighted yet another embedded imbalance.

  7. Nurn says:

    I suppose “folks” could be considered an alternative for a group of people.

    My kids (two female, one male) are always collectively in my head known as “the guys”. My ex, my parents, my brothers/sister will ask, “how are the guys?” (West of Ireland but my formative years were in the USA)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Folks is the answer for many people, but it’s not as widely applicable as guys, I think. In the last paragraph of my article I consider a few of the alternatives and describe folks as popular but too folksy for some.

  8. astraya says:

    Out of curiosity and procrastination, I typed ‘image that guy’, ‘image those guys’ and ‘image you guys’ into a major search engine. The results were overwhelmingly male. ‘You guys’ results in many images in which the person in the picture is talking to someone else – in-frame, out-of-frame or ‘out there’.

  9. I grew up with the word ‘guy’ as being for males. I would no more refer to a woman as ‘guy’ than I would call her ‘bloke’. I found the discussion regarding Dutch and French above very interesting.
    Interestingly, in Greek the gender neutral term that tends to be used amongst friends is paidia (παιδιά) which means ‘children’. In the plural, you may use it with your adult friends, although not in the singular and not in a formal context.
    A possible equivalent for ‘guys’ would be pallikaria (παλλικάρια), a term which remains resolutely male.
    Now I am thinking about it, it seems to me that when necessary, you just avoid a noun or subject pronoun completely in Greek. This is achievable as the verb suffixes tell you which person is referred to, and any further pronouns or indeed other grammatical markers in the third person can be put in the neuter. (The words for ‘person, boy, girl’ are all grammatically neuter, so this can work).

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, Millie, that’s really interesting. I guess when a language marks these grammatically, there’s less need for a phrase like (you) guys. English is still compensating for the loss of thou and co. all those years ago. We’re lucky in Ireland to have retained ye and developed youse and its variants.

  10. It’s always interesting to see the path of some words and terms along time. In my mind the word “guy” was male, but used as a slang for both genders. Nowadays, i just use it normally and don’t even think about it.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’d say that’s similar to many (if not most) native-English speakers below a certain age. But it’s curious how the word’s gender-neutrality depends so heavily on the context. I wonder how that will change in the coming decades.

  11. cowboywithnonose says:

    When I hear someone use “guy” to address people, I think nothing of it. At my school, girls will use it towards a group of girls and I’m so used to it, it feels weird to remember that people use it to refer to males. In a similar way, me and my best friend, who is female, both use “bro” and “dude” to address each other and I would use “dude” to address anyone, regardless of gender. I do wonder about my language choices. I wonder when we’ll see people using a gender-neutral pronoun commonly to refer to others. Food for thought.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Well, there are several gender-neutral second-person plural pronouns in common use, even aside from ‘you’, but they tend to be geographically or otherwise restricted. Dude and bro as terms of address didn’t catch on at all in some populations, and bro has negative connotations in some communities. So it’s all a bit fractured, and is likely to remain so.

  12. I find myself avoiding “guys” as a gender-neutral, and even “fellows’ in an academic sense makes me cringe a bit.

  13. Steve says:

    I used “guys” almost interchangeably with “blokes” until in 1971 in Namibia I heard two American kids from Colorado addressing mixed groups as “you guys”.

    There is a difference though, apart from the gender, “Good guys” means something different from “good blokes”, and the same applies, mutatis mutandis, to “bad guys” and “bad blokes”.

  14. […] language generally centre on usage issues that recur frequently: singular they, generic he and man, generic guys, Ms/Mrs and other forms of address, suffixes such as –ess, –ette and –trix, and common terms […]

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