Guy

Stick figure‘Guy’ is one of American English’s most amorphous nouns. Like many three-letter words, this monosyllable is more complex than it seems at first. Its basic definition is obvious to virtually any native English speaker: it means a person of the male gender. Yet in American English at least, the word has developed some mysterious ‘rules.’

For instance, why can ‘guy’ be gender-neutral in the plural, but not in the singular? A young woman might say to her friends, “Let’s leave, guys” or “Why are you guys being so difficult?” But she would never say “Molly is a really nice guy.”

Similarly, using ‘guy’ in the second person feels taboo. I refer to ‘guys’ dozens of times a day, yet I would never dream of saying ‘Can I talk to you, guy?’ This type of construction is not unheard of, yet in my experience second-person ‘guy’ is confined to comedy or threats (‘How’s it going, guy?’ sounds either facetious or menacing). As often as we Americans use the word, we find it impolite to refer to each other as such.

Perhaps ‘guy’ creates a mildly dehumanizing effect. After all, ‘guy’ is the only ‘man’ synonym I can think of that has developed an inanimate usage. A young American couple shopping at a grocery store might be overheard asking, ‘Do we want this guy or that guy?’ or ‘Should we buy the bigger guy?’ ‘Non-human guy’ is probably a recent development, too sporadic and rare to constitute a major shift in definition. But it nonetheless illustrates the impersonal nature of the word.

I often wonder where ‘guy’ currently stands within the context of world English. The term is clearly native to North American (and probably Australian) English. Beyond that, the picture is less clear. I’ve heard many Britons use ‘guy,’ but I can never tell if this is an unconscious adoption of American norms or a genuine reflection of the word’s spread. The British Isles, of course, have their own collection of ‘man’ synonyms (bloke and lad being perhaps the most notable). Where does ‘guy’ fit into this vocabulary?

Share

About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
This entry was posted in American English and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Guy

  1. Ellen K. says:

    I think the singular equivalent of vocative “guys” (“Hey, guys, look at this”) is the person’s name. And, of course, the singular of “you guys” is “you” (I guess we don’t have a need for a definitely singular form of “you”). Thus both not using singular “guy” in the second person (at least with the same meaning as the plural) and not using it for females, since the gender neutral usage is generally vocative or “you guys”. I think it’s also used referentially when referring to specific people, “those guys”, but it would be used, if used for a mixed or all-female group, only for familiar people, I think, and, as I see it, sort of an extension of “you guys”. Thus, again, for the singular we’d use a person’s name. Well, that’s how I see it, anyway.

  2. Andrew C. says:

    Ben: “…in my experience second-person ‘guy’ is confined to comedy or threats (‘How’s it going, guy?’ sounds either facetious or menacing). As often as we Americans use the word, we find it impolite to refer to each other as such.”

    Really? That’s interesting because I’ve never thought of that as impolite. Maybe it varies depending upon what region you’re in. I’ve known some guys (I had to) who would call pretty much every male “guy”. I’m pretty sure they weren’t being facetious or menacing. I would say they were trying to be more cool, casual and informal.

    A word similar to guy, that I find funny, is boss. And of course I’m talking about when it’s applied to males who aren’t the person’s actual boss. I’ve heard this before, especially at restaurants from male waiters and hosts. I always wonder if their (real) boss told them, “The customer is always boss.” and they took it too literally. I’ve heard it occasionally in other contexts too.

    • Charles Sullivan says:

      I’ve noticed the word ‘boss’ used among African Americans and Jamaicans as a general term of respect.

    • trawicks says:

      @Andrew,

      It’s obviously pretty subjective–my own impression is that that type of usage is, if not taboo, then at least regarded as something of an oddity. To me, it depersonalizes your relationship with your interlocutor. ‘Guy’ has a rather indefinite quality that makes it sound a tad strange in the vocative sense.

  3. Nick says:

    It’s not entirely native to North America; it has a very British origin!
    The image of the Guy Fawkes effigy came to be used for ‘a person of grotesque appearance’ (OED “guy” 2.2). (My impression is that it retains a little of this offensiveness in the UK but I can’t be sure.)

    • Ellen K. says:

      It’s not a matter of the word in general, nor of origin, but of usage.

      That said, the online etymology dictionary had guy meaning “fellow” as originally American English (and it gives earlier meanings).

  4. Doire says:

    It’s a good day to to talk about guys; tonight is bonfire night, Guy Fawkes night, when the English traditionally burnt an effigy of him. We still have the bonfire but I don’t often see a guy these days.

  5. Andrew says:

    I’m a teenager from near-to-Liverpool, where we use the terms ‘lad’ and ‘guy’ (‘bloke’ is pretty much absent in this part of England). So I’ll tell you what my perceptions are on the use of these words. Of course, I could be wrong; native speaker’s perceptions of sociolinguistics often aren’t reliable.

    I don’t know how it was used in past generations, but among current young people ‘lad’ is somewhat restricted. It’s basically associated with working-class males. Most speakers will use ‘lad’ in a third-person sense, and females will usually talk about males in a romantic context as ‘lads’ rather than ‘guys’–though third-person ‘guy’ and ‘guys’ isn’t unheard of. I’m not sure whether people would use ‘guy’ for non-males, outside of ‘you guys’ which some Americanised middle-class speakers use instead of ‘youse’ (many middle-class speakers will just use an undifferentiated ‘you’ in the plural though–I think ‘you guys’ still seems like an Americanism to many people) . I’d certainly find it a bit odd.

    The second-person ‘lad’ is more strongly divided among class lines, and also rarer to hear coming from females, since it connotes masculinity. Variants of ‘lad’ with raised vowels, like ‘lid’ are said to be used, but I can’t say much about them–I’m not aware of anyone who actually uses these variants. There’s also ‘mate’, which is exclusively used in the second-person (in the third-person it refers explicitly to a friend, rather than just any informal relationship) and seems to be less strongly associated with the working-class. I have never heard ‘guy’ used in the second-person here.

    I don’t think there’s any relation between ‘guy’ as ‘man’ synonym and the Guy Fawkes effigy in the minds of speakers. Certainly no-one my age would be insulted at being called a guy.

    • trawicks says:

      I’ve noticed some slightly pejorative undertones with ‘lad.’ The term ‘laddish,’ after all, suggests loutish, boorish behavior. Interesting that it’s becoming a possible indicator of socioeconomic status.

      • Jamie says:

        I wonder if that is a north/south thing. To me “lad” sounds normal in a northern accent but does sound slightly derogatory or condescending in a southern one.

        I always think of bloke as a southern (south-eastern, even) word. Not sure if that is accurate though.

  6. Darren says:

    in Urban areas on Toronto it is still quite common to hear dialog such as….”YO..guy, whats going on?”…or…”No guy, I can’t make it tonight”…or similar

  7. Aaron Bauman says:

    I think the second person pronoun can be used affectionately, specifically in addressing small children or animals, and typically accompanied by “little” or “big.”

    I’ll give some unnecessarily specific examples:
    * greeting a squirrel: “Hey there, little guy”
    * complimenting a toddler: “Nice drawing, big guy”

    No facetiousness or malice intended.

  8. IVV says:

    I don’t normally use “guy” in the second person (although I might use a “little guy” or “big guy” construction, like Aaron Bauman).

    Otherwise, I’ll use “dude.”

  9. Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ says:

    Guy is also used in Ireland particulary in “New Dublin” — the sterotypical pronunciation of a Southsider been “Goys” —

    Aside from that it’s become somewhat gender neutral. This is like the expression “lads” which is more common in rural Ireland and is increasing been used to cover both men and women.

  10. Rachel says:

    Another interesting thing I’ve noticed about guys vs you guys is that at least for me, they possessivize differently: guys possessivizes like a normal plural: guys’ [gaɪz], while you guys becomes you guys’s [jugaɪzəz].

  11. Pingback: Superlinguo – all things linguistic-y | Pineapple Donut

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>