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The Word

Hey guys!

Yes, ladies, this means you

By Erin McKean
March 21, 2010

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In the study of peevology, language subdivision, one of the more fertile areas of inquiry is the long list of things that people are annoyed to be called. Not the truly offensive terms — none of which can be printed here, and all of which have a level of discomfort far higher than “pet peeve’’ — but the more general terms, whose offense is often magnified when they’re used by strangers involved in a commercial transaction.

Some people hate to be called “honey,’’ or “sugar.’’ A few feel that any use of “hey’’ as an attention-getter is rude (with the classic retort being “Hey is for horses’’). Others believe that being called “ma’am’’ ages them 10 years. But one of the more widespread vocative peeves, at least for women, is being addressed as “you guys.’’

Whether it’s the group e-mail that opens “Hi Guys!’’ or the waiter who says “OK, guys, your table is ready,’’ the use of “you guys’’ for groups of mixed gender (and even for all-female groups) can send the needle on many peeve-ometers into the red.

There’s plenty in the history of the word guy that would make you think the word is objectionable on its face — it comes from the name of Guy Fawkes, one of the conspirators in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, a thwarted attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in England. From that inauspicious beginning, the word came to be used for effigies of Guy Fawkes that were paraded and burnt on Nov. 5, the anniversary of the plot. The word guy came to mean any effigy — and from there was then applied to any scary-looking or badly-dressed person, in the same way that scarecrow can be used to say that someone looks gaunt or ragged. The word was also used as a generic term for man. (Not necessarily casting aspersions on the way you dress, fellas, but …)

However, it’s not the “freakishly dressed person’’ sense of guy that causes the offense; it has been so long since guy has been used that way that it has lost any residual sting (at least in the United States). The discomfort seems to come from a perceived gender disconnect: “The waiter wouldn’t address a group of men and women with ‘you gals,’ ’’ the thinking goes, “So why should he or she use ‘you guys’?’’ This may shortly be followed by another kind of indignation: “Do I look like a guy?’’

“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 of up of more than half women is easily addressed as “you guys.’’

But however much this use of guys annoys you, believe me, it’s better this way. The plain truth and the knotty problem is that all the other options for addressing a group are worse.

(Just to be clear, I’m not saying that anyone, male or female, doesn’t have the right to be offended at being called “you guys.’’ This is America; you’re allowed to be offended by whatever you choose. You can be offended at not being addressed “Commander SnorkelFritz, Hero Third Class of The Loompian Hegemony,’’ and I will fully support your indignation...and not just because I want to see your uniform, commander.)

Unfortunately for us, and for our waiters, in English there are relatively few ways to address a mixed group, and each has its own problems. “Ladies and Gentlemen’’ can sound either too hokey or too formal; “folks’’ can be, well, too folksy; and a plain and unadorned “you’’ may not convey enough inclusiveness. I’m a big fan of “y’all,’’ but it has problems of formality and regional distribution. “Gal,’’ while a rootin’-tootin’ good word in the right context, sounds too artificial for everyday use, and has patronizing overtones: A Gal Friday is just a glamorous gofer, after all. And as much as I enjoy Damon Runyon, “Right this way, guys and dolls,’’ is not really a practical option in places other than self-consciously cute speakeasies.

If it’s any consolation, we’re already used to words in English that have different meanings for the singular and plural: look and looks, arm and arms, manner and manners, and custom and customs all give a wider meaning to the plural without anyone raising a stink — and it’s easy to imagine guy and guys joining the list.

Whether from a dearth of suitable alternatives or just from habit, “you guys,’’ if not completely entrenched, is well on the way to being the standard casual way to address a group. Rather than fight that battle, we may want to save some indignation for the next awkward form of address to surface. I’m thinking it’s probably “dudes.’’ (Seriously, dudes.)

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at erin@wordnik.com.