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Hey, You Guys! Listen Up!

you-guys-yall-mapGuys, are you listening? Let me tell you a story. A true story, in fact, about Barack Obama.

Obama has good rapport with the presidential press corps. Or so it would seem.

As White House photographers and reporters crowded in to hear Obama and Donald Trump tell how their first meeting went, two days after the November 8 election, Obama ended the session like this:

“Thank you, everybody. We are not going to take questions. Thank you, guys.

“Come on, guys, yeah, c’mon, guys.

“Thank you, guys, appreciate it. Thank you, guys.”

That seemed friendly enough. But in saying guys, was the president committing microaggression against the women reporters and photographers there? Was he acting as if the press corps were a men’s club, and women didn’t count?

In the war against sexist language, a war that has succeeded in eliminating policeman in favor of police officer, eliminating mailman in favor of letter carrier, eliminating mankind in favor of humanity (or people), and even recently for generic he allowing the substitute they — all along, a blatantly masculine guy has been swimming against the tide, becoming more widely used than gender-neutral alternatives like folks, people, or you all, to name just a few ways of  addressing a group without taking sides. (Guy, as I wrote here in 2011, comes from Guy Fawkes, the failed 1605 terrorist in England, but that’s another story.)

Guys, what gives? Why are people of all gender orientations latching on to guys?

It seems a basic principle of language that if an expression is widely used, that must be because it is widely useful. People wouldn’t use a word if they didn’t find it useful. So if you use it — and a lot of you guys do, regardless whether you’re GLBTQ or A — there must be a reason.

Here’s my hypothesis: More than any alternative vocative, guys is friendly and familiar. It reduces the distance between speaker and auditors. And it implies that the speaker is on a level with listeners, not dictating to them from a position of power but appealing to them as an equal, to do what’s asked because, well, it’s the right thing to do, or just because the listeners are included in consideration.

The history of you guys bears this out. The term is a relatively recent one, first attested in the early 20th century, but at that time just in masculine and slang contexts. Edna Ferber’s 1911 novel Dawn O’Hara, The Girl Who Laughed, has a character named Blackie who says at one point, “Guess you guys ain’t got the stimulatin’ effect that a bunch of live wires ought to have.”

By 1975 you guys was being used to refer to parents and other male-female couples. Michael Weller’s 1975 play Fishing includes these lines: SHELLY: I can’t help him He won’t let me. He’s just never gonna do anything with his life. ROBBIE: I thought you guys were happy. SHELLY: I love him, you see. That’s the problem.

And in our 21st century? You’ll find not just men addressing men but women addressing women as you guys, for its connotations of friendliness and intimacy. In other contexts, guys remains male, but to the consternation of some patrons, if you go to a restaurant your server is likely to ignore the male-female distinction and begin by asking, “What can I get you guys to drink?”

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