Lexicon Valley

How Gender Neutral Is Guys, Really?

This guy is running for president.  

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The unlikely story of guy: It was originally an eponym for Guy Fawkes, then referred to someone dressed up in a grotesque costume. By the mid-19th century its meaning had broadened to denote a man, before extending further to become an informal, gender-neutral vocative or term of address, especially in the plural. Hey guys.

This use of guys to address a mixed group has been around for decades. It’s a pop-cultural favorite, propelled to catchphrase status by the exuberant “Hey you guys!” in The Goonies, itself a nod to The Electric Company.

But it’s not universally accepted. For some listeners, guys conjures the sexist male-as-default paradigm, and it has an androcentric flavor regardless of a speaker’s intent. Words can lose such connotations, of course—bollix has been thoroughly bleached in U.S. English—but it takes time.

Male terms can and do broaden to become generics, but female terms tend not to: Men would not tolerate it. Erin McKean commented on this asymmetry in the Boston Globe in 2010:

“You guys” may simply make some women feel overlooked or ignored, especially a single woman in a group being addressed as “you guys.” There’s a sense that even one man would short-circuit any attempt to address a group with “ladies” (except in a sarcastic-coach way), but a group made up of more than half women is easily addressed as “you guys.”

At the Economist, Lane Greene found that guys works “as a vocative to an all-girl group” but not as a noun referring to them—the word has a “funny distribution,” as he put it. Unlike Greene, I’ve heard guys used to refer to (not just address) a group of women. The speaker was always a young woman, which is suggestive given that young women often spearhead linguistic change.

Such innovations aside, third-person guy skews heavily male. That guy is nearly always male, some guys normally so. Good guy and bad guy have established more genericity but still suggest men. Goodie and baddie are gender-neutral alternatives, but big guy and little guy lack analogous options. One survey found striking differences in how women and men perceive guy(s)—for example, far fewer women considered those guys gender-neutral.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (1994) says guys can be used of women and corporations and “truly has become a term for ‘just any person.’ ” But its examples don’t quite bear this out. Some are tied to male pronouns: He was a tenacious old guy; he wants to be one of the guys; he is no ivory tower intellectual but a regular guy. The other set phrases—tough guys; refuge of the little guy; tell the good guys from the bad; in the other guy’s shoes—connote maleness because patriarchal power structures make that the default reading.

One citation in MWDEU stands out:

Amy Irving likes it that Santa Fe isn’t a swinging place. “The people are down-home. I’m just a normal guy here,” she says. (Andrea Chambers, People, 1982)

Amy Irving notwithstanding, most dictionaries define guy as a man and note its gender-neutrality only in the plural. This includes regularly updated dictionaries that use contemporary corpora. So how gender-neutral are guy and guys really?

It depends. 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).

Change may be afoot even among the more male uses of guy. A tweet from linguist Lynne Murphy reports a 7-year-old girl asking, “Does he live with that guy?”—where guy referred to a woman. The child was adamant that girls “can be ‘guys.’ ” Some adults are also deliberately adopting the use of guy as a singular, gender-neutral term of reference: “I know that guy, and she’s awesome.”

This striking use of guy may be an ephemeral anomaly, or it may be the future, unevenly distributed. English has rather few options for general-purpose, mixed-gender address. Folks is popular but too folksy for some. Everyone is limited. People can feel stilted. Y’all has its people, dudes its dudes, and in Ireland ye, youse, yiz, and other variants are prevalent. Absent a widespread, versatile alternative, guys is filling a niche.