Inanimate ‘Guy’ in American Dialects

Frying PanThe last time I discussed the word ‘guy,’ a generic term meaning ‘man,’ I mentioned a rather fascinating way in which the word has evolved in American dialects. ‘Guy’ has come to become synonymous, in some situations, with ‘thing.’ For example, rather than asking someone to pass the frying pan, you might ask,

‘Could you pass me that guy over there?’

This strikes me as fairly unusual. I don’t believe anyone in the UK refers to everyday objects like frying pans or table lamps as ‘blokes.’ So how did ‘guy’ come to mean ‘thing?’

‘Guy’ is not the first word referring to humans that came to refer to non-sentient beings, of course. One might cite a similar use of ‘girl‘ (imagine a man trying to start his car in the wintertime, sighing in frustration, ‘the old girl’s on her last legs). But using ‘guy’ to refer to things seems much more common.

I wasn’t able to wrangle much in terms of research on the topic (even an unambiguous Google search such as “use of ‘guy’ to refer to inanimate objects” wasn’t helpful). So I’ll offer my own personal perspective on the matter. When I’m putting a way dishes, and ask my wife (in reference to a plate):

Where does this guy go?

it’s reasonable to ask why I choose ‘guy’ rather than ‘thing,’ or merely ask ‘where does this go?’ For me, ‘guy’ adds a certain emphasis: I am talking about this thing, in my hand, right now.

Furthermore, ‘guy’ feels like more of an appropriate substitute for ‘plate.’ The word ‘thing,’ to me, refers more to something which I can’t classify. So, for example, if I were asking where to put the strange lemon-juicing device we have in our drawer, I might ask ‘where does this thing go?’ But for something as common as a plate, the use of ‘thing’ feels odd. And so I go with ‘guy.’

Anyone else out there who use ‘guy’ in this way?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched 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.
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24 Responses to Inanimate ‘Guy’ in American Dialects

  1. Karen says:

    I’ve only heard this from Jimmy Fallon (random, but true). And it always sounds funny and I always make fun of him when he says it.

  2. beslayed says:

    I think this use of “guy” is actually anthropomorphising, at least a bit (or at least humorously). You point out a similar use of “girl”. I’m guessing (just guessing) that this might be connected to the fact that, as you point out, these usages have a strong tendency to be restricted to objects relevant to the here and now. So perhaps they’re being semi-anthropomorphised as participants in whatever action is taking place (e.g. the frying pan is the one who’s going to be cooking the eggs). That’s purely speculative though. I’ve certainly heard this use of “guy” and “girl”, but I don’t think I use it myself.

    Probably unrelated, but there is another sort of inanimate use of “guy” in English, e.g. referring to effigies of Guy Fawkes. (“Penny for the guy?”). I’m guessing it’s not connected though.

    • trawicks says:

      It certainly does lend an anthropomorphic quality to things. It softens the conversation, adds an affectionate quality. I definitely picked up the tendency from my wife, partially because I found it so endearing.

  3. Mazzoir says:

    Have been known to use ‘chap’ in a similar way here in the UK. I’m pretty certain I’ve heard it used on cookery shows, eg Saturday Kitchen. And almost certainly heard James May say it on Top Gear, referring to tools (not his co-hosts, obvs).

    • trawicks says:

      Interesting. I didn’t consider ‘chap,’ but that makes more sense than ‘bloke’ (for reasons I can’t put my finger on).

      • zpc says:

        I was going to mention ‘chap’ in the UK, as well. Also ‘fellow’ – I swear I’ve heard ‘this little fellow’ from someone explaining the purpose of a tool. (But ‘bloke’ does seem like an entirely different sort of word to me too – not only because I wouldn’t use it for a thing, but also because if someone said to in a mixed gender group ‘you blokes’ I’d read that as only the men, whereas ‘you chaps’, ‘you fellows’ and ‘you guys’ I’d assume to mean everyone. Possibly it’s this more-exclusively-masculine element that makes it seem inappropriate for a gender-neutral object?)

        Actually, more on the gender-of-inanimate objects thing – I wonder if this is an influence from languages where there is no neuter?

  4. Nitsan says:

    Your first example (frying pan) was very strange to me, but the 2nd one (plate) made more sense. I think that in this case, before the common use of “guy” as you present it, the most appropriate “free-speech” word I would use would be “one”. “Where does this one go?” – so my feeling is that it is used when the object deserves more attention than others around it that are being used (right *now*, as you’ve mentioned) for the same purpose or in the same context. This explanation also fits the frying pan example. In both examples, “this” and “that” are emphasized in speech – at least that’s what I hear in my head. Do you emphasize these words as well, I wonder?

    Another aspect, not contradicting the one above, is that “guy” gives a slight feeling of sympathy towards the object – “animating” it if you will. This is what I believe makes it different than using “thing” – which feels more distant (like in the sentence, “What is that *thing*?!”). I don’t see why using “thing” makes it less emphasized as what you’re holding in your hand right now.

    • trawicks says:

      I think you’re on to something there: ‘thing’ has taken on a cold, contemptuous quality. Because ‘thing’ is non-human by it’s definition, it has often been used as a rhetorical tool of dehumanization (a good pop culture example: the line in ‘The Princess Bride’ in which Cary Elwes’ character threatens his foe with such hideous dismemberment that children will look at him and cry, ‘Dear God, what is that thing?!’). ‘Guy’ does the opposite. It humanizes the non-human.

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    I think that “guy” and “guys” are well on their way to entering pronounland, as an alternative to “one” and “them,” but strictly in informal AmE.

  6. Tom says:

    Interesting that in English, our nouns don’t have inherent genders, as some other languages’ nouns do. I wonder if there’s some innate human propensity to want to assign gender to objects?

    If you’ve read David Sedaris’s “Me Talk Pretty One Day”, you’ll certainly remember his attempts to get French noun genders straight by mnemonic methods such as this:

    ‘Hi, guys,’ I’d say, opening a new box of paper clips. ‘Hey, have you seen my belt? I can’t find her anywhere.’

    • CC says:

      I don’t think there is necessarily any sort of movement towards genderizing nouns. On the contrary, the vast majority of languages with only a “feminine-masculine” distinction in nouns all usually descend from systems that also had a “neuter” noun class also. In the same way, the “girl” example, and other examples of anthropomorphism in English, are simply remnants of the old gender system we once had. “Guy” on the other hand, can often be used without comment on gender (as I’ve noted below), meaning that this extention of its use can be tacked down to semantic bleaching, and not to genderizing.

  7. CC says:

    It’s not so hard to imagine the use of “guy” in refering to inanimate objects when one remembers that “Guy” can get rather fuzzy even when it comes to people. A person can say to a group of people with mixed genders, or even a group of all women “Hey Guys!” without it being strange in the slightest. It is obvious then, that this is a product of semantic bleaching and not really of anthropomorphing. With a shift from “any man”>”anyone”>”anything” it does seem clear that (in Marc Leavitt’s words above) the word is “entering pronounland”.

    It is a rather interesting point you make, Trawicks: What separates this use of “guy” from “thing”? Just coming from some basic amount of intuition, I think the theories that you’ve come up with are very plausible ones.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks! I think words take on semantic nuances that we often don’t acknowledge. (The recent discussion about the use of ‘please’ on this site is similar; the word is technically still polite, but often expresses exasperation or anger).

    • Ellen K. says:

      It seems to me, though, that when used to refer to people (talk about people) rather than to people (“you guys”, “hey, guys”), it’s still mostly a word that refers to males. Not always, but it seems to me most of the time, and definitely sometimes quite strongly so. If someone says “those guys” referring to people, I would example the group referred to to be all male.

      While there’s no reason to take it as a strongly gendered use (guys as distinct from females) when it’s used for pans and plates and such, still, I wouldn’t associate that with the gender neutral usage, which is for the most part when talking to the group the word refers to.

    • D Sky Onosson says:

      I think I agree with this – “guy” is slowly losing the semantic properties it has related to animacy, and is thus more freely used with inanimates.

  8. thatguy says:

    I agree with beslayed. I use it (Ottawa, Canada) as a somewhat humorous over-anthropomorphization. It is coupled with use of pronouns like “he” and “him”. Most of the people who I’ve heard use it this way re also computer programmers versed in object-oriented programming, where we think of objects as instances of classes, which “understand” certain messages, perform certain behaviors and “talk” to other objects… I’m not sure whether we just extend this pattern to non-programming things, or whether the two arose independently.

  9. James says:

    Is this really particular to ‘guy’? Though I haven’t lived in the US much for the past 7 years, and am not really familiar with the usage you’re talking about, I’d say that ‘hombre’ and ‘mama’ work just as well. And words like ‘baby’ and ‘sucker’ work even better. Where does this sucker go?

    • D Sky Onosson says:

      I agree with all these examples – given the right context (including geography and register) these all have legitimate usages with inanimate objects.

  10. Here in Brazil we use “bicho” (animals, pets etc) to refer to a “thing” and a “person” (male) as well,

    e.g.
    PERSON: “E aí, bicho. Beleza?” (Sup, dude?);

    PET: “Eu adoro meus bichos de estimação” (I love my pets).

    THING: “Me dá esse bicho aí, por favor.” (Grab me that thing, please.)

    Hope I added a not-so-stupid information.

  11. Neil Bardhan says:

    The New York Times has a neat piece today on codes used in NYC restaurants. A place called “The Dutch” in SoHo specifically mentions their use of “The Guy” for inanimate objects.

  12. Dave says:

    Yep, me and a few other northwesterners do this

  13. Lauren C. says:

    This conversation is long over, but I’m chiming in anyway. I call objects “guys” because I think it sounds cute and clever. I would never use it for something I think is gross or I don’t like, because it’s affectionate, a type of dimunitive. I do think it only works referring to a thing or things that are physically present. For what it’s worth, I’m from the Pacific Northwest, but I’ve lived in the upper Midwest for many years.

    As far as “you guys” goes, I consider that a basically genderless phrase and a decent placeholder for “you” plural in an informal setting, since I am not folksy or Southern and would never use “y’all” unironically. “That guy” or “some guys” is gendered when talking about people, though.

    This blog reminds me why many years ago I got a BA in linguistics. I love these discussions!

    • thatguy says:

      Lauren, interesting comments. You put it well with words like “affectionate”, “cute”, “clever” – that matches usage I’ve seen. I hadn’t considered physical presence of the object(s) but that does seem to be critical.

      Re. using “guys” to refer to groups of humans – I use it frequently to talk about groups of mixed gender, or even groups of females. (I have two daughters and say “you guys…” all the time). Perhaps in the latter case it’s just due to the lack of an informal feminine equivalent (girls maps to boys, and usually has implications about age or maturity which we don’t necessarily want to use; women maps to men, is more formal and also has age-based implications; gals has not been in style since before I was born), but it seems to be generally accepted. Although it’s only in the plural that this seems okay; for singular I would never refer to a female as “that guy”.

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