I have an attestation from The Glass Key, by Dashiell Hammett and first published in 1930

She rubbed her face into the chintz cushion under it and said: “A swell guy I turned out to be, promising to marry him yesterday and then leaving him to take the first tramp I run into home with me.” source

(the "tramp" she's referring to is a man)

This suggests that "guy" in 1930/31 meant "an informal word for person," with no connotations of either "grotesque in appearance" or "male in gender." But all the other usages of "guy" in that book refer to men (as far as I can tell). How confident can I be that "guy" in the 1930s was gender-neutral?

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    Considering that the musical Guys and Dolls is based on Damon Runyon short stories from the 1930s, and that I can find the quote "He mistreats my friend in every way any guy ever thought of mistreating a doll, and besides the old established ways of mistreating a doll, Frank thinks up quite a number of new ways, being really quite ingenious in this respect." in one of these stories, where guys really seems to refer to men, I don't think you can be sure at all. Of course, Damon Runyon was from New York, and Dashiell Hammett from California, and I assume slang was more regional back then. Feb 13, 2018 at 13:14
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    The quote above is from Dream Street Rose, 1932. Feb 13, 2018 at 13:16
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    It should be noted that Damon Runyon was well-known to invent his own street slang, so he's not a reliable reference.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 13, 2018 at 13:23
  • Going back to the 60s, at least, it was not uncommon for "guys" to be used to refer to a mixed-gender group, without irony. It was also used in that time frame to refer to a group of women, but with a touch of irony.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 13, 2018 at 13:25
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    I read that example as her ironically applying the idiom a swell guy to herself. I do not conclude that she would refer to herself as a guy in any other context.
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 13, 2018 at 13:26

2 Answers 2


The Corpus of Historical American English lists only 45 hits for swell guy, all referring to men. This, of course, is too small a sample to infer any particular usage with certainty, but it seems to me that the character in question could just as easily have referred to herself ironically as a boy scout: i.e., exhibiting the opposite of various qualities listed in the Boy Scout Oath. Swell guy is then a briefly ungendered metaphor for a code of upright, trustworthy behavior — though swell guys were not averse to fun.

Given Hammett's hypermasculine style — indeed of the whole genre of hard-boiled detective novels — it's not surprising that a female character would refer to herself with a term usually reserved for men.

When women of that period were fun, dependable, and trustworthy like swell guys, they were likely more often called a good egg, a term used for both genders.

Singular guy is still gendered for most Americans, who would only refer to, say, an injured animal as a "poor guy" if the animal is male or of unknown gender. Guys in the plural may be perceived by those who use it as ungendered, but not in all circumstances. You guys as filling the same second person plural linguistic gap as Southern American y'all is more readily seen as an inclusive use.

On balance, I'd say the chances of Hammett's using swell guy inclusively are slim to none.


For what it's worth, the history of (this sense of) the word guy is short and it starts very clearly with a man: Guy Fawkes. So to start with, the word "guy" as we use it today to refer to a person, most likely a man, is derived from a man's proper first name.

The OED definitions are, in order of first-attested date:

1806 - An effigy of Guy Fawkes traditionally burnt on the evening of November the Fifth, usually with a display of fireworks.

1836 - A person of grotesque appearance, esp. with reference to dress; a ‘fright’.

1847 - A man, fellow. orig. U.S.

My conclusion based on the attestations provided in the OED as well as perusal of newspaper corpora is that the word was probably more firmly a reference to men in the 1930s than it is now.

Furthermore, it appears to me from the quote in question that the word "guy" is actually meant to mean, quite literally, a man as distinct from a woman.

She rubbed her face into the chintz cushion under it and said: “A swell guy I turned out to be, promising to marry him yesterday and then leaving him to take the first tramp I run into home with me.”

Here the speaker is ridiculing both men and herself by comparing her behavior to men and describing it as dishonest and unfaithful. Her use of the word tramp refers not to "a person on the tramp" but rather the U.S. slang meaning:

A sexually promiscuous woman.

These clues all suggest that the word guy here is used to mean a man, in a fashion consistent with the word's historical trend.

  • It does not start clearly with Guy Fawkes; of the American usage, the OED specifically only asserts that "The earliest examples may be influenced by sense 2." ("Sense 2" being your 1936 definition.) Given the complete discontinuity between sense 2 and the American usage, as well as the lack of cultural impact that Guy Fawkes has made in the US, it seems much more likely that this is at least largely an independent coinage from the common given name.
    – 1006a
    Feb 14, 2018 at 21:46
  • @1006a I think a straightforward reading of the OED text actually suggests that sense 2 developed out of sense 1, which was Guy Fawkes. In fact, under sense 1, OED offers a note: The figure is habited in grotesquely ragged and ill-assorted garments (whence sense 2) [emphasis added], and was formerly accompanied by other similar effigies (representing unpopular persons), to which the name of ‘guys’ is often given by extension. Feb 14, 2018 at 22:48
  • I agree, sense 2 developed from sense 1; it's not clear to me that sense 3 developed from either of those. The OED offers no guidance, but none of the nineteenth century examples of sense 1 or 2 are from American sources; the word doesn't appear to have been in use as anything related to Guy Fawkes in the US in the decades following the Fawkes incident, and then suddenly appears being used to mean "fellow" with entirely benign connotations, contra the usual British usage.
    – 1006a
    Feb 14, 2018 at 23:08
  • @1006a That's definitely a reasonable argument. My line of reasoning for associating all of the senses together was the note you referred to that "the earliest examples" of sense 3 were influenced by sense 2, which made me think that the sense was an outgrowth of those early examples, but that is an assumption on my part, and it's true that the OED offers no explicit guidance. Feb 15, 2018 at 0:12

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