I was sitting in the usual coffee spot with Margot and Jess when Arlene Chu, one of our newer student members, walked in with some friends. She spotted us and turned to her friends. “Hang on, guys, I’m just going to say hi over here.”
Margot was her usual charming self. “Your friends are guys?” she said as Arlene approached.
“Huh? No, they’re all female.”
“That’s what I thought,” Margot said, “but you called them guys. I thought perhaps they were in dis-guys.” Yes, she said it so as to highlight the pun.
“I’d say,” said Jess, “it’s just because they’re anonymous.”
“Anonymity does not confer a sex change,” Margot said primly.
“I think you’ve been out-Fawksed,” I said to Margot. Jess gave me a thumbs-up.
“Wait,” said Arlene. “You’re referring to how members of the hacker group Anonymous wear Guy Fawkes masks.”
“Very good!” Jess said. “Yes, as inspired by the movie V for Vendetta.”
“But all those Guys are guys,” Margot said.
“A woman may wear a mask,” Arlene said. “And words can mask gender too.”
“Interestingly,” I said, “though words can be evocative, this word, in the vocative – the plural vocative – is less specific than in its other senses. It is indeed a guise. A group of females are not guys, and are unlikely to be called the guys, but they can still be addressed as guys or you guys.”
“Our tongue is losing its specificity,” Margot said.
“Not always a bad thing,” Jess said. “One’s sex is not necessarily pertinent in all occasions. But I think this one has its roots in loss of number specificity a longer time ago. Once we started using you for all second persons and dropped the singular familiar thou altogether, we lost a good way of making it clear whether we were addressing one or many.”
“And you all sounds a little too Southern for many people’s tastes,” I added.
“We got along fine until just recently,” Margot said.
“How recent is recent?” I said. “When I was a kid in the ’70s, there was a magazine and TV show called The Electric Company – for kids who had outgrown Sesame Street. On it, there was a character, Millie the Helper, played by Rita Moreno, who would shout to a group of no-matter-what sex, ‘Hey you guys!’”
“For mixed-sex groups, perhaps,” said Margot, “consistent with the use of the male for any case where sex is not known…” Jess, Arlene, and I all rolled our eyes.
“It’s useful and it’s entrenched now,” Jess said, “at least in casual usage. After Legally Blonde and the sorority girls saying things like ‘Oh my God, you guys’ to each other, it’s a done deal. Women, especially young women, tend to be the cynosures of linguistic change.”
“So anyway,” Arlene said, “to make sure I have this straight: this old Anglo-Norman name happened to be the name of a guy – ha, literally a Guy – who tried to blow up parliament, and was hanged for real and then ever thereafter in effigy, and from those effigies Guy came to be a term for a grotesque or frightful or odd-looking man, and from that it transferred to a general term for a male. And now, just when you’re using it to address a group in the plural, it can refer to males or females.”
“Semantic bleaching,” Margot said with some asperity.
“Well,” Arlene said, “at least Fawkes’s first name wasn’t Dick.”
“Couldn’t be worse than Guy, could it?” Margot said.
Arlene’s friends had reached the front of the line and were calling to her for her order. She started to walk away. “OK, well, ’bye, you guys, nice chatting.” She paused and said to Margot, “’Bye, you dick.” And stuck her tongue out and went on her way.