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Disclaimer - I have very little knowledge of semantics, and I am mostly just a phonetics enthusiast. Thus, my question and the way I explain it may be unprofessional or may lack linguistic rigor.

I'm a teenager, and I'm from the American Midwest. One feature famously characteristic of discourse in the Midwest and central United States is the use of the phrase "you guys" as a second-person plural pronoun. As a Chicagoan, I can confirm that this phrase is indeed quite common, as opposed to the rarer "y'all" (Southern connotation) and "you all." A simple "you" is still possible.

The word "guy" of course has historically had a gendered connotation, applying specifically to males. However, I wonder if it can be reasonably claimed that the plural form "guys" and modified forms such as "you guys" and "those guys" have lost their gendered nature.

Like the masculine third-person plural pronouns in Romance languages ("Ils" for French), "you guys" can be used to refer to a mixed-gender group. I assume this is a well-established usage. However, I think the phrase has lost its gender specificity enough that the gender of the group may not even matter. I think there are many situations in which calling a group of women or girls "you guys" might be considered perfectly normal - although I don't know if everyone, especially people from other parts of the US and the Anglosphere, would agree. I think it would be only slightly less normal to refer to an exclusively female group with a phrase like "those guys."

You can also say something like "Guys, it's raining outside" to a group of women or girls. I am guessing this has something to do with "guys" being placed in the vocative case, acting almost like an interjection. However, the situation is probably a bit more nuanced and complex.

The genderlessness does not seem to extend to the singular form, "guy." In some cases, a person might default to "guy" to refer to a hypothetical person or a person whose gender is unknown, but typically the word would only refer to a male.

My uneducated analysis of this situation leads me to the tentative claim that while "guys" still has a clear gender connotation, it has essentially lost its gendered function when modified with an initial word like "you" or (slightly less so) "those" or when in the vocative case. However, it maintains genderedness in other cases or in the singular form.

I am wondering the extent to which it can be said that these terms have lost their gendered definitions in American English, and what the proper way of classifying this shift might be.

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    A similar development applies to dude (in the singular), which is now fairly common in some dialects even in conversations with no male participants. But this question should really be asked on English Language & Usage instead of here, since it’s specifically about the usage of an English term and isn’t about language as a system. It can be migrated there by a moderator. Feb 22, 2023 at 14:57
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Although it is about the usage of an English term, I am trying to ask for a formal linguistic explanation of the semantic phenomenon I have described, and I am not sure that ELU is a better Stack Exchange than Linguistics for me to find that.
    – Graham H.
    Feb 22, 2023 at 15:19
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    Well, first, Anne Curzan (Curzan 2003: 173) argues that “The shift of the prototypical meaning of guy to males seems to be a twentieth-century phenomenon” and then “semantic bleaching”happened in you guys regardless of gender or that guy meaning that thing (she uses it in quotes because it could be arguable). cambridge.org/core/books/…
    – Alex B.
    Feb 22, 2023 at 16:10
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    Curzan's explanation sounds very likely. That's the way it appeared to me as it happened. Feb 22, 2023 at 17:24
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    While it may mostly be considered non-gendered, it's still a term that's best to avoid in male-dominated groups (such as software engineering) as it can feel non-inclusive in those contexts.
    – xorsyst
    Feb 24, 2023 at 9:21

3 Answers 3

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This shift is basically old news, having been around for over 40 years. It's an example of generalization in semantics, where a property previously seen as being essential to the term is dropped in ranking. Earlier, one of the essential properties was contextual informality – it's an endearative; and it used to only refer to males. The word "folks" is similar but has the defect of lacking a singular. The current situation is that, idiolectally, there is only a weak suggestion that the referents are male. It is most likely to be used in the plural: we would need a controlled sociolinguistic study to see whether it is used to refer to a singular non-male.

The larger point is that there are essentials and non-essentials in word definitions. For example, the noun "press" originally was a device for pushing down on a thing, including pushing a bed of inked metal type onto paper. The method used to print newspapers and books is not really essential to the concept of "the press" as enshrined in the First Amendment, so what was one part of the definition of "press" in the publishing sense was eliminated entirely as non-essential.

I think it is a mistake to try to "classify" such changes, instead, one ought to try to understand what the changes are, and see if there is a good reason to distinguish this kind of semantic change from another kind of semantic change.

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    Re: press. I've always been amused that the Italian word with the same connotation and much the same usage is stampa, from another "press" verb that's gone through the same technological tunnel. Similar remarks on football "net" versus "web/reti". You take a word you're used to and you make it work harder in another context. Feb 22, 2023 at 17:27
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    @Nelson If you ask a straight man if he has had sex with any "guys" or "dudes", I bet he will answer emphatically no. Feb 23, 2023 at 6:32
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    @EllenSpertus sex is particularly concerned with gender, so the use of "guys" when talking about sex would imply that their gender matters. In other content, "guys" can refer to ladies, like "Come here you guys!" But then when referring to specific groups of people, like "Those guys." then gender matters again. Hmm, English is just messed up actually.
    – Nelson
    Feb 23, 2023 at 7:36
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    @EllenSpertus This is a well-worn gotcha but I don't think it is relevant. "Guys" used in vocative form, as in "take a look at this, guys," is frequently used in all-female groups, which cannot be said of "men" ("take a look at this, men" definitely implies all-male listenership), so it's different.
    – Casey
    Feb 23, 2023 at 17:32
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    I don't think folks lacks a singular... rather it is another example where the meaning has shifted, so folks is not anymore synonymous to nations or peoples
    – Roger V.
    Feb 24, 2023 at 8:58
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I agree that "you guys" is non-gendered in modern English. And possibly also "hey guys," to a much lesser extent. But I still think the word "guy" is gendered in pretty much every other context. For example I wouldn't say the following to refer to a group with any women in it, and I'm surprised other respondents here would:

  • "those guys"
  • "I know a guy"

If I heard someone refer to a group of women as "those guys" I would think it was strange. Keep in mind also that "guy" is not only gendered, but in some contexts it is even the default way to refer to a male in a casual sense. For example let's say I'm asking a friend if there will be both men and women present at a social event. I might say "will there be guys and girls there?" I probably wouldn't say "men and women" (and definitely not "males and females") since it would sound too formal.

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    This is not an answer to the question but rather a longish comment.
    – Sir Cornflakes
    Feb 23, 2023 at 18:07
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    Are you sure? While it's hard to definitely say what the original question was – there were no question marks at all in the post – it seems to me it was essentially "I am wondering the extent to which it can be said that these terms have lost their gendered definitions in American English". So I am clarifying that the term hasn't lost its gendered meaning to the extent OP may think. And in fact it may be more gendered than he realizes.
    – Anonymous
    Feb 23, 2023 at 23:16
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    @Anonymous you make an excellent point! :-) +1
    – uhoh
    Feb 23, 2023 at 23:52
  • I find it interesting that we can ask "will there be guys and girls there?" and the contrasting feminist request that "girls" be used only for children and not adult women. Is there a modern, non-awkward way to ask this question without using "girls"? The best I can come up with is "will there be dudes and chicks there?", which is not only cringe but probably also objectionable to feminists. "Will there be boys and girls there" is clearly about children only, and "men and women there?" is just awkward. Feb 24, 2023 at 4:08
  • If you try to worry about pleasing niche groups with your language, you're going to have a bad time. Even if you found the right way to refer to men and women at the party, the question would still be exclusionary of transpeople. Best off to just use the language that sounds right to you and that most people would understand what you're asking.
    – Cruncher
    Feb 24, 2023 at 14:04
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https://www.etymonline.com/word/guy suggests the word originates from "small rope, chain, wire" (1620s), and may have linking to the word "guide". You can imagine, I'm sure that a particular (nautical) rope having "guiding" qualities might be called a "guide rope", and since little knowledge was written, this became spoken as "guy rope" (which we still use today, on tents, for example).

The source then suggests "guy" was used to mean "fellow" in American English in 1847. Again, you can imagine how that may have come about - perhaps as a term of endearment for an acquaintance who was something of a leader (or possibly through the same mis-hearing that turned "guide" into "guy" in the first place?).

The American English usage of the word was (IMHO) most likely used to describe a man, predominantly because, at that time, most precarious activities were performed by men, whilst women tended to homely duties. Therefore, if you said "guy", it was generally understood to mean you were talking about a man, despite the word being ungendered, and perhaps more about a "guide" or a sturdy rope(?).

The word is undergoing something of a conscious ungendering, as indeed are many words or phrases, as we become more aware of patriarchy and other challenging social constructs. As noted by @user6726, this has been going on for quite some time already, but is perhaps more pronounced in recent years.

Update: Comments suggest the reference I used is unreliable. Wikitionary suggests the term primarily comes from Guy Fawkes, but also confirms the French "Guido" (Guide). Word Histories also confirms the French origins, but again suggests Guy Fawkes. Panlex talks about the origins of the (male) given name "Guy", and also talked about Guy Fawkes. Chatterbug has an entirely different take on the origins of the name.

Whatever the origins, the name "Guy" (for a man) seems to have appeared in England around 1066. This could of course have been the origin, subsequently "popularised" by Guy Fawkes 600-odd years later. This doesn't really shed any light on the plural "guys" though. We don't generally pluralise other names, which suggests there may be another route for that particular word through history.

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  • Forget about etymonline: It is a one-person amateur project and consists of copycat work with sources not quoted. Wiktionary disagrees, and it has a References section.
    – Sir Cornflakes
    Feb 23, 2023 at 10:15
  • In what way does wiktionary disagree with etymonline?
    – amara
    Feb 23, 2023 at 13:59
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    It's not that Etymonline is unreliable, it's that you've combined the etymologies of two totally unrelated words; note the headings 'guy (n. 1)' and 'guy (n. 2)'. Wiktionary also has both words; if you scroll down the page, you'll find 'Etymology 2: From Old French guie, linked to verb guier (“guide”), from Frankish *wītan, ultimately from Proto-Germanic *wītaną (“know”).' This agrees with Etymonline.
    – Théophile
    Feb 23, 2023 at 14:22
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    @SirCornflakes Etymonline may be the passion project of one person, but the sources they used are absolutely reliable. Are you really saying that Wiktionary, which can be edited by anybody and demonstrably contains all sorts of crap is a better resource than Etymonline? Citation very much needed. Especially since the relevant entry (for guy) has no References section and absolutely no references quoted.
    – terdon
    Feb 23, 2023 at 15:14
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    @terdon: Last I visited etymonline, it was not given where a particular etymology there was taken from. The site only gives a list of references, many of which are reputable, but it was untraceable. Did you read the Wiktionary entry? It has references for guy (some old etymological dictionary from 1911) giving the two quoted etymologies.
    – Sir Cornflakes
    Feb 23, 2023 at 15:51

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