Is “you guys” no longer appropriate to use in our more enlightened gender-neutral speech? It has an undeniably male “twang” to it, that’s for sure. But how do modern English-speakers – especially female and non-binary folks – respond to that catch-all term used to conveniently and informally address a group of people in the absence of a genderless second person plural in standard English (which German-, Turkish- and Gaelic-speakers, among others, are lucky enough to have in their linguistic toolkits)?
About seven years ago Glossophilia published a post called “Boys will be guys,” which looked at the word guy in all its guises, including how it’s used in the plural to mean “multiple people regardless of their gender.” Admittedly a lighthearted and anecdotal post, it portrayed guys as a perfectly acceptable/accepted term that few objected to at the time. President Obama used to end his news conferences with “Thanks you guys; I appreciate it” – but that was already four years ago (and what a long four years that has been). We’ve seen substantial changes in our language since then. As the linguist John McWhorter explained to The Atlantic in 2018, in a discussion about this very subject: “I think there’s a really serious and welcome reconception of gender lines and relationships between sex and gender going on. Something has crested in particular over about the past 10 years.”
First let’s take a stroll through the origins of the word “guy” – used in both its singular and plural senses. According to the linguist Farooq A. Kperogi, in his book Glocal English: The Changing Face and Forms of Nigerian English in a Global World, “Dr. David Dalby, a well-regarded English linguist known for his Linguasphere Observatory, once made the case that the plural, non-gendered “guys” in English owes etymological debts to the Wolof “gay,” which is also non-gendered and plural. All the etymological dictionaries I consulted have no insight on the origin of “guy” other than to say that it came to global, mainstream English from American English. This admission, I think, strengthens the argument for the African origin of the word.” This is surely an intriguing possibility.
A more popular and much more widely accepted theory is that the word guy originated in England in the early 17th century, as a result of the infamous “Gunpowder Plot.” In a nutshell: a young Catholic soldier named Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament and to assassinate King James I in 1605, in an effort to restore a Catholic monarch to the throne. Fawkes’s plan failed, and Brits started to commemorate that fateful day – November 5 – by burning effigies of said “Guy” on bonfires. And so the bomb-plotter’s first name took hold: in towns and villages up and down the country, the eponymous effigy was made from rags and sticks and eventually thrown onto a fire to the community’s ritual delight. To this day, Brits enjoy fireworks and bonfires on “Guy Fawkes Day” – which even enjoys its own jaunty rhyme – although the old tradition of children chanting and collecting “a penny for the guy” to pay for the local fireworks party has pretty well disappeared. Then, slowly over the next couple of centuries the word guy widened its meaning to describe any villainous person or man. Eventually, at the start of the 20th century, its plural form became even more generic, used predominantly in the US to address or refer to any group of people, regardless of their gender. And there it has stuck, for a little more than a century: even girls continue to be guys.
I think one of the reasons guys (as in “Hey, guys”) has endured in our vernacular for as long as it has, despite a growing desire (if not an urgent need) for a gender-neutral alternative, is that all the other options on the table right now have issues. Y’all is probably the leading contender; as a fellow monosyllable it packs a friendly punch. However, it has an overly informal vibe (not terribly appropriate for formal business settings) as well as an awkward association with America’s deep south, which can be off-putting for some – and the contraction doesn’t easily roll off the tongue of a non-American. Then there’s folks. Here’s another informal term: fairly innocuous, but not necessarily ideal for the office, and it does have that – well – “folksy” quality. “Hey team” might be good for the boardroom or locker-room, but not for the bar; “hey friends“, by contrast, might not go down so well with unfamiliar colleagues or associates. “Hi all” or “hi everyone“, while both perfectly respectable, are arguably bland and impersonal, and definitely lack that friendly zing of guys. So let’s go back to our front-runner, y’all, and check out the variations on this quintessentially American contraction (which to be honest makes me think of a man in cowboy boots addressing his rodeo bulls).
Youse, like y’all, makes our single you plural, in an obvious and easy way. A few years ago the Chicago Tribune explained its origins: “’Youse’ originated in Ireland among speakers switching from Gaelic to English. Gaelic has a second-person plural, sibh, and the Irish thought their newly acquired language ought to have one, too. So they conceived the neat solution of adding an “s” to “you” to make it plural. Irish immigrants brought “youse” to the United States, and it was once widely used in cities where they settled. (It’s still widely used in Ireland.) The word can now be heard mainly among older people in ethnic neighborhoods of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis, as well as in the mining communities of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.”
I’m a member of a Facebook group called “Pretentious Literature and Language Elitists” (of course), and recently the group had a discussion about the term y’all and all its regional and international variations. Here’s a selection of those comments below; they demonstrate (with Glosso’s bolding) just how ubiquitous the y’all and youse variations are all over the English-speaking planet. My bet is that the heir of guys begins with a ‘y’, and that it will ascend to the throne of the second person plural before y’all can say Jack Robinson.
“In Kentucky, it’s “you all,” not the “y’all” of the deeper South.
“There are still many users of “ye” in Kentucky. It slips in without being noticed by most people. But it’s there. My mother-in-law said it.”
It’s yintz in Pittsburgh
My uncle from southern Indiana said “yunz”
Same in Pittsburgh: yunz or yinz
In Scotland, and particularly in Glasgow, it’s very common to hear ‘youse‘ as the plural of ‘you’
Here in New Zealand we say “youse guyses” or “youse fullas.”🤣🤣
Youse – Pretty common in white south side Chicago in my day.
“Youse” is common in Newfoundland, Canada. Very, very seldom heard West of the Atlantic provinces.
I grew up in central Ontario, and some people there say “yous‘ , but it’s pronounced more like yuz. But very uncommon here in Toronto. I like that.