When I was growing up, there were two types of people: guys and girls. If you were “going out with the guys,” that pretty much implied that there weren’t going to be any girls around or that you were going to be doing “guy” things — like pounding down beers or playing a game of non-co-ed softball. You can be sure that there was talk about the “girls” among the “guys” or maybe we were really hoping that some girls would be around to see us hit a home run in the softball game. Those were simpler times in some respects.
Paying a little more attention to the word “guy” I would like to note that that never was a very respectful way to refer to someone of the male gender. If you reported, for example, “I saw a guy from work,” that meant that his name wasn’t very important and, by extension that the person wasn’t so important either. This person you saw was clearly not your boss and definitely not the president of the company and probably not one of your good friends. You only knew that this person had male characteristics and not necessarily positive ones.
Nowadays we have all become “guys.” When I go out to eat in a restaurant with my wife, who is quite clearly female and proud of it, we are routinely both addressed as “guys”: “Did you guys like the food? Do you guys want any more?” Although these questions are certainly well intentioned, my wife, who is of the same generation as I, experiences them as rude. “Where is the other guy?” she wonders. Also at school, where I work, teachers and students routinely talk to groups of people of mixed sex as “guys”: “You guys really did well on this test!” How is it that we all have simply become a bunch of guys?
I think there are at least two things going on here. First of all, I believe that this linguistic development clearly points to the lack in modern-day English of a distinct plural form of the second person pronoun. We have only the word “you,” which can have either a singular or a plural meaning. Four hundred years ago, when the King James Bible was written, English had two different groups of words to address others: “thou/thee” were the forms of address for one person and “ye/you” were the forms of address for more than one person. The German language still has the two forms “du” and “ihr.” That we really miss the distinction between a singular and a plural form of modern-day “you” is shown by many local attempts to fill this lack. In Pittsburgh, people say “you’uns” or “yinz,” in Cleveland one might hear “youse,” and in places in the south people say “y’all.” In general these local expressions are looked down upon as sub-standard English and so we come to the new default form of “you guys.”
A second reason for this development is our desire to be an egalitarian, non-classist society. As much as we Americans love to read stories about the royal family in England we don’t want any king here! We want everyone to have equal rights and equal regard. In older forms of English the plural forms of “ye/you” also indicated respect, deference and social distance from the person addressed. Something similar is still the case in German with “du” and “Sie” and in French with “tu” and “vous.” In Japanese the complexities of addressing another person are much more complex. We Americans dislike making such social distinctions which has contributed to the lack of a distinct plural form of address in our language.
And so we have all become “guys,” even the girls! I do not see this as a satisfactory solution. On the one hand, it clearly robs about half of the people it addresses of their gender identity. To make this clear, imagine how it would be if mixed groups of people were all addressed as “you girls!” Those who identify as male would certainly not accept that. Nor would it be a great gain for women. Although some women talk about their female friends as “girls,” to be addressed by an outsider as a girl, rather than as a woman indicates a lack of respect. In the same way, to just be another “guy” is a demeaning designation. I think that we are all better than that.
I don’t suppose that we will quickly change our way of talking, but I think that we can begin by avoiding the use of “guys” when talking to mixed groups. Even if we used the term “folks” that would be better: “How are you folks tonight?” My gym teacher in elementary school used to call us kids “people.” I used to find that strange, but I think it is a better choice than “guys.” Using the terms “students” and “pupils” is also respectful and gender inclusive. Maybe in the future we will have a vote on which of the regional variants we should adopt: yinz, youse, y’all or something entirely different. Let us at least begin the discussion!
Eric Smith lives in State College.