Duke University Press

The word GUY so pervades American speech that a detailed account of it would hardly seem necessary, yet the multiple meanings of the word guy are quite complex and are connected to the structure of English. Contemporary English is in a schismatic state between those who make use of or prescribe generic nouns and pronouns, such as man and he ‘human being’, and those who view these constructions as signs of a deeply sexist structure of English. Generic uses of man and he have now long been the targets of “politically correct” language reforms, the chief objection being that a word that primarily signifies the masculine gender cannot also signify the feminine gender or serve as a nongendered or gender-inclusive lexical item. Both man and he primarily signify the masculine gender, but they are also polysemous. English man ‘male human being’ developed from the Old English grammatically masculine noun man(n), whose meaning was originally ‘human being’, and he took on generic functions after the loss of grammatical gender in the Middle English period. Semantic change is not an uncommon phenomenon, but such changes should not be taken as clean, crisp breaks with the past. The prototypical meaning of a lexical item may change its focus, but the old meanings can still remain connected peripherally. The cognitive model behind the multiple meanings of man and he, despite the current trend to eliminate their generic and inclusive uses, must still be powerfully active in the minds of English speakers, for the development of the word guy closely parallels their meanings and functions. The framework of guy presented in this paper has already become firmly established in colloquial speech registers in American English, but guy has yet to be accepted as a proper literary word. Whereas guy in spoken English has developed relatively unaffected by the same sociolinguistic pressures that are eliminating generic uses of man and he, it remains to be seen what problems guy will cause as it continues to develop as an acceptable word in written contexts.

1. Analogical Source Material: Man and He

The English word man has been used to mean ‘human race, human being’. Countless phrases, proverbs, scientific pronouncements, and works of philosophy, politics, and literature attest to this meaning of man: 1 [End Page 282]

  1. 1. Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. [Matthew 4:4, King James Version]

  2. 2. Every man for himself. [Burchfield 1996, 478]

  3. 3. Time and tide wait for no man. [Burchfield 1996, 478]

  4. 4. Men have long yearned to unlock the secrets of the atom. [American Heritage Dictionary 1992, 1090]

  5. 5. That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. [Neil Armstrong]

  6. 6. Men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

  7. 7. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . . . [Declaration of Independence]

  8. 8. What a piece of work is a man. . . . [Shakespeare, Hamlet]

Figure 1. Man
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Figure 1.


Figure 2. He
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Figure 2.


It is only now at the end of the twentieth century that complaints have been lodged against generic man as sexist, even though this use is supported by historical evidence. In Old English man(n) primarily meant ‘human being’; the separate words wer and wif meant ‘male human being’ and ‘woman’. In Middle English man was also an indefinite pronoun (cf. German man ‘one’ vs. Mann ‘male human being’), with meanings ranging from today’s ‘one’, ‘anyone’, and ‘they’ to ‘people’, ‘we’, and ‘you’; or it may be “translated” into Modern English by a passive construction. However, even in the Old English period, man(n) could be used for ‘male human being’. Eventually this became the primary meaning, whereas the generic meaning ‘human race, human being’ has been relegated to a peripheral position, particularly in twentieth-century usage. However, generic man has not been done away with entirely. 2 The third-person singular personal pronoun he has also traditionally been used for generic reference. The current range of meanings for man and he is represented in figures 1 and 2.

Man is at once male, plural inclusive, generic reference, and another name for Homo sapiens. Owing to these multiple meanings of man, individual [End Page 283] occurrences may be semantically ambiguous, and even the context may not help us adequately distinguish which meaning is intended. The personal pronoun he can be used to replace the noun man, and thus it covers the singular uses of man. However, he is not limited to the meanings of man: nonhuman objects and entities are also commonly referred to with he. In the plural, English does not make any gender distinctions, and the nongendered personal pronoun they is used to replace plural men. 3 Compound and phrasal uses of man have been challenged as sexist, including chairman, spokesman, businessman, mankind, fireman, mailman, freshman, man-made, manhole, common man, man on the street, and so on. As one style manual put it, “Many people now regard such usage as sexist and try to avoid it” (Swan 1995, 227). Nevertheless, these semantic features of man and he are reflected in the uses of guy presented below.

2. A Guy of Many Talents

Contrary to everything we might expect because of the pressures of “politically correct” putative language reforms, a new generic noun is developing right before our eyes. At the heart of the man model is a noun that is used primarily to refer to a male human being but that has peripheral meanings that include people of both genders. The new generic noun also has ‘male human being’ near its core and can also be used as a plural inclusive and, in a limited way, in generic reference. Parallel to the old generic noun man and the paired nouns man/woman, American English is currently developing the generic noun guy and the new pair guy/girl. In this section, I present a model for guy as it relates to the models for man and he in figures 1 and 2. I also discuss the ways in which guy differs from man and the ways it acts pronominally like he, where it lacks correspondences to those models, and where it shows innovation. I also present evidence for the pair guy/girl where girl is “borrowed” from the pair boy/girl. [End Page 284]

The origins of guy remain somewhat obscure, but the word appears to have developed from the French name Guy, particularly in association with Guy Fawkes, the leader of the failed Gunpowder Plot against the English Parliament (5 Nov. 1605). 4 The customary British English use of guy seems particularly associated with the subsequent tradition of burning effigies of Fawkes on 5 November each year. It is perhaps due to these connections with Guy Fawkes that British English has been resistive to the American uses of guy (see 2.6 below). Even given the American political distance from the British context, if this account of the origins of guy is correct, it is remarkable that the word guy has achieved such a widespread and neutral status.

Figure 3. Guy
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Figure 3.


The uses of guy in contemporary American English are represented in figure 3. The domain of guy at present is confined to the spoken language and informal writing, especially sports and entertainment writing in newspapers and magazines.

Guy is like man in that it may be used as a noun referring to a male human being, as the plural inclusive guys, and to some extent as a generic reference noun in the singular. Guy is also found in some phrases where it may be interpreted as a word for ‘human race’, but these uses are often humorous and are not included in figure 3. Like he, guy may also be used to refer to nonhuman objects and entities and, in some respects, behaves pronominally.


The primary meaning of guy, as with man, is ‘male human being’. This word is so widespread in spoken American English these days, it sometimes seems that there are no men left, only a bunch of guys.

  1. 9. I think that is a guy. [male college student, upon seeing the name Vanja in a Russian exercise, 1996]

  2. 10. Do you think a princess and a guy like me . . . [Han Solo, Star Wars, 1977] [End Page 285]

  3. 11. Guys cooperating with other guys in an age-old task [male cooking show host, commenting on male barbecue rites in Puerto Rico, 1997]

  4. 12. He’s not a cyclops, just a one-eyed guy. [Gabrielle, Xena: Warrior Princess, 1997]

  5. 13. If I’m going to spend $70 on a guy at Esperanza, I had better get . . . [female college sophomore, Rice Thresher, 3 Nov. 1995] 5

  6. 14. He was the guy last year who gave up a decisive touchdown in the NFC championship game. [male college sports writer, Rice Thresher, 2 Feb. 1996]

  7. 15. . . . Bill Clinton, a brilliant campaigner and an “average guy” [male opinion writer, Rice Thresher, 20 Sept. 1996]

Examples (9)–(15) illustrate how guy is used to refer to an adult male human being. The word is used by both male and female speakers in various social situations and media. Example (9) indicates that guy is a common variant for characterizing any male human being, since the identity of Vanja is unknown beyond the confines of the grammatical exercise involved. The colloquial, common, “laid-back” nuances of guy are demonstrated in (10), where guy is opposed to princess, and in (11), where guy is perhaps used for ironic effect, given that the speaker juxtaposes the modern barbecue with ancient rites. Examples (12)–(15) are further instances of guy used to identify a male human being, from football players and mythical creatures to the president of the United States. All of these examples are typical uses of guy to represent a male human being, one of the primary uses of guy.


Guys is often used as a plural inclusive with the meaning ‘people’. Man has this plural inclusive use as well in (4), (6), and (7) above, but this usage is not so common in contemporary English, as opposed to the frequent occurrences of guys as plural inclusive.

  1. 16. Hey guys, did you get enough sleep last night? [male college student, referring to two male students and a female student, Rice Thresher, 26 Jan. 1996]

  2. 17. We’ve got our two little guys going in first. [male college student describing the first two people (both female) to get in the car in a VW Beetle-stuffing contest, Guinness World Records: Prime Time, 1998]

The use of guys as a plural inclusive is also seen in the expression you guys, which is not unlike the second-person plural y’all. 6 Many languages lose gender distinctions in the plural, so this use of guys is not surprising. However, the use of guy in the singular for generic reference is a bit odd. Nevertheless, we do find such instances of generic guy where the word may refer equally to a man or to a woman. I offer the following testimonial taken [End Page 286] from a conversation between three lawyers (estimated to be around 50 years old), two women and a man, at a convention in Tucson:

One woman was relating a story and referred to “a guy” messing up a presentation. The man called her on it and said you mean a woman. The woman said, “Oh, I use the word guy for both a man and a woman—it is sex neutral.” [1997] 7

Other uses of guy in the singular as a generic reference noun are found in the following examples:

  1. 18. Steppenwolf was four people and I’m just one guy. [actress Joan Allen, hosting Saturday Night Live, 14 Nov. 1998]

  2. 19. “You now have a new priority. It’s not about you guys, it’s not about either single one of you. It’s about this guy. Whatever you can salvage for yourself, good for you.” [Paul Reiser, as quoted in an article in the Raleigh (NC) News and Observer, 1997]

Example (18) illustrates the exact usage of guy described in the testimonial, a female speaker referring to herself as a guy ‘person’. The generic use of guy in (19), referring to the arrival of a baby in a couple’s life, is connected to the development of guy as a type of deictic demonstrative pronoun (see 2.3 below). Granted, these examples are harder to find, but it does not appear that generic guy is idiosyncratic to the speech of only a few people. This particular function may represent a growing and expanding meaning for guy. 8

The development of masculine words into vocative expressions, exclamations, or forms of address may also help to explain how guy could be used as a noun of generic reference. Words like man and dude have long served as exclamations, not really forms of address, or even as specifically masculine referents. Man, it’s cold! or Dude, that’s great! could be part of any colloquial utterance, whether or not one or both speakers or addressees were male. Across languages, we see a variety of forms of address, for which English mostly uses such forms as sir, ma’am, miss, mister, and so on. Russian, for instance, lacks such forms of address, particularly since the all-purpose and gender-neutral tovarisc ‘comrade’ has fallen out of favor. Rather, we find the use of molodoj celovek ‘young man’ and devuska ‘girl’ (even when these terms are not really age-applicable). Forms such as zenscina ‘woman’ or babuska ‘grandmother’ may also be used, or even the somewhat odd, from a literal perspective, muziki ‘peasants’, in the sense ‘hey fellas’. When used as forms of address, particularly in the singular, these phrases are likely to retain their gender references. Although the loss of gender distinctions in the plural is a common change across languages, masculine nouns like guy in English also display a tendency towards becoming generic reference nouns even in the singular. [End Page 287]


Although we have seen numerous ways in which the schema for guy is like the schema for man, in one particular way guy is more extensive than man, and more like he in that it can be used to refer to nonhuman creatures and objects.

  1. 20. Well, primarily, our guys that come in initially are—within seconds or minutes—are the blowflies. [male forensic entomologist, Natinal Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, 4 Apr. 1997]

The forensic entomologist in (20) refers to a swarm of blowflies as guys, demonstrating the extension of guy to nonhuman animate creatures, but (21) through (23) take the extension even further.

  1. 21. Watch this guy on your left. [male, referring to a car, not to the driver, 1997]

  2. 22. This guy moves at velocity V, 2V, 3V . . . and it’s the same for this guy. [female astronomer, referring to stars in expanding galaxies, 1997]

  3. 23. Unless forensics pulled a print, this guy’s virtually untraceable. [male character, The X-Files, likely referring to a gun, 1997]

The referent in (23) may be either an unknown criminal or the murder weapon itself, but the more likely choice, based on the wider context, seems to be the gun. It is not likely that we would find the word man used to refer to stars, guns, or cars, yet guy serves perfectly well in such cases. In such instances as these, it almost seems that guy could be used as a name for anything we can conceive of as a discrete entity or object. The term is not limited to male human beings or to human beings as a whole or even to living beings. We might well ask how a word whose primary meaning is ‘male human being’ comes to be used for nonhuman entities and inanimate objects. Examples (19) and (21)–(23) all feature the expression this guy. These uses are all clearly deictic and behave much like demonstrative or indefinite pronouns. In this sense, this guy or some guy is similar in meaning to this one, this thing, or someone/somebody, something. In such constructions, the combinations typically have a single phrasal stress. These examples show that guy can be used like one, thing, or -body, that is, as a general noun. In indefinite uses, guy may be viewed as spanning the range of the more animate words one and -body and the inanimate word thing. It is thus more versatile than man ever has been. The this/that guy construction, as with other uses of guy, is common in informal speech. The extension of meaning from guy ‘male human being’ to ‘nonhuman entity or inanimate object’ shows a sort of semantic bleaching as guy has been grammaticalized as an indefinite or demonstrative phrasal pronoun.


Although guy has previously participated in pairs such as guys/gals or guys/dolls, these combinations are moribund in con [End Page 288] temporary American English. The dominant pairing is of guy with girl, as demonstrated in the following examples:

  1. 24. [Guy:] My name’s Guy. What’s yours?

    [Ellen:] Girl. [Ellen, 1997]

  2. 25. Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place [ABC sitcom title, 1998]

  3. 26. I could spend some “guy time” with Hammie here at home while you and Zoe have some “girl time” together shopping for preschool clothes! [Baby Blues comic strip, 2 Sept. 1998]

  4. 27. Guys make a formal decision to sing falsetto. Girls don’t do that. [female college student, 1998]

  5. 28. The Secret Service, as Jerry said, since 1901 we’ve developed that and our protectees have faith in us and to lose that is going to break the foundation, is going to shatter the foundation of the protective principle of proximity and they’re clearly going to say, “We’re going to have to keep these guys and these girls a little bit farther away.” [Timothy McCarthy, Meet the Press, 24 May 1998]

  6. 29. Well, there are girl and guy dinosaurs. [adult male speaker, ABC Prime Time Live, 2 Sept. 1998]

The examples in (24)–(29) display the basic pairing guy/girl and demonstrate its range of application. The joke in (24) and the sitcom title in (25) support the existence of guy/girl as a natural pair in English. The sentences in (26)–(28) show that the two words can be used for any pairing of adult males and females, even when the ages are not known, and (29) shows that the pair may be used metaphorically, even for nonhuman male-female pairs.


The descriptive pair guy/girl is most often used by college-aged students when referring to themselves. Examples such as (27), said by a college-aged female speaker, seem to indicate that a young, mature, college-aged human being is best described by the guy/girl pair. This usage of guy/girl raises the topic of sexist language. Several factors involved in the usage of these two words, however, call into question the charge of sexism. Among these factors are literary (i.e., edited or public written) versus spoken language, the existence of multiple pairings, and issues of political correctness.

As shown in 2.4, the existence of the guy/girl pair is not the problem. Rather, the problem lies in the fact that girl is a perfectly acceptable word in the literary language (cf. its role in the boy/girl pair), whereas guy still possesses the overtones of slang. This means that even though speakers of American English would use the words guy and girl to refer to college students in speech, the same speakers are inclined, when writing about those students, to avoid writing guy and to substitute man, whereas girl makes it into print because it is an acceptable literary word. Once this [End Page 289] written disparity between man and girl is perceived, however, it almost invariably leads to a letter to the editor in protest. In the following examples, girl was used to refer to a female college student, whereas man would likely have been used to refer to a male college student. When a college newspaper journalist referred to a female student as a girl in the headline “Agency Reacts to Girl’s Fall” (Daily Tar Heel, 30 Jan. 1996), a letter appeared a few days later complaining that the “Headline Should Not Have Identified Woman as ‘Girl’” (Daily Tar Heel, 2 Feb. 1996). Under opposite circumstances, the journalist might have been inclined to use the word guy in spoken reference to a male student’s fall, but would not have written it, because of the nonliterary nature of guy. However, female college students also refer to themselves as girls, as shown in another letter to the editors of the Daily Tar Heel:

  1. 30. Just because the girl you talked to does not care about Tiger Woods’s success does not mean others should not care either. [female graduate student, Daily Tar Heel, 21 Apr. 1997]

The author of the statement in (30) is referring to comments made by a female student quoted in an earlier sports column. The general lack of guy in print media makes it difficult to find the guy/girl pair outside of quoted speech; however, an article on the college dating scene from the Rice Thresher (11 Oct. 1996) sheds some interesting light on guy/girl, man/woman, and combinations of these and other words in pairs. In an article of 1,028 words, the sexes are referred to 31 times by the terms guy(s), girl(s), men, woman/women, and (adjective +) female, altogether accounting for 3% of the words in the article. For male human beings, guy(s) was used 13 times and men only once. For female human beings, girl(s) was used 4 times, woman/women 10 times, and (adjective +) female 3 times. When the words were paired, guys/women occurred 5 times, (junior or senior) female/(freshman) guy once, guys/girls 3 times, and men/women once. Although the guy/girl pair quantitatively trailed the guy/woman pair in this article, this fact may be attributable to the literary medium or to political correctness. Compare the following example from the News and Observer, a professional publication that doubtless is aware of the political ramifications of using guy/girl in print:

  1. 31. As many guys as women get skin cancer. Think about it and wear a hat. [News and Observer, 25 June 1997]

In (31), perhaps there is also a resistance to the guy/girl pair when the reference is not to a specific age group, such as college students. If so, then the prototypical guy covers a wider spectrum in age than girl. The use of terms signifying ‘male human being’ as generic reference and of plural [End Page 290] inclusive terms has been discussed above. Just as the typically male referents may be less marked for gender reference, they are also less marked for age.

In my search of the Rice Thresher, I found many examples of the word guy in print. However, the vast majority of these appeared in sports articles, either in the main text or in quotations. Many other examples came from general quotations and from movie reviews. When the context is less formal, as in sports columns, guy appears almost as often as it does in speech. However, guy is almost nowhere to be found in more formal writing. Since I began studying this phenomenon, I have seen an increasing number of examples of guy in the News and Observer, the Washington Post, and other newspapers. Generally speaking, television news programs tend to parallel the formality of written news articles, but guy does occur in the ad-libs of anchors, such as when a female anchor comforted viewers not to worry about hurricane chasers, because they are careful guys, but then, in the immediately following report about health issues, the same speaker used the pair men/women. Guy also turns up frequently in interviews and roundtable discussions with or about politicians and government officials. We also find some print examples of guy in set expressions such as good guy/bad guy or nice guy. 9 It is my hypothesis that guy will keep flourishing in the spoken language and will gradually gain acceptance in the written language. It is most interesting, given the current efforts to discourage the use of generic man and he, that a new generic noun is developing, similar in many respects to the traditional schema of man ‘human being’ represented by figure 1. However, it remains to be seen what will happen to guy if it becomes accepted into the standard literary language.


Given the ubiquitousness of guy in American spoken English, one may wonder whether the word is used in any other varieties of English or in the English of nonnative learners. Although guy does seem to be a particular Americanism, its use is not limited solely to American English. 10

  1. 32. I’m sure he’s a perfectly able guy. [British prime minister Tony Blair on William Hague, the new opposition leader, This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts, ABC News, June 1997]

  2. 33. The party conference of Sinn Fein, which greeted those men, just got caught up emotionally, because these four, these four guys were 23 years buried in British prisons. [Gerry Adams, Meet the Press, 24 May 1998]

In (32) and (33), we see guy used in the comments of a British English speaker and an Irish English speaker. While I have not conducted a study on the use of guy in Ireland and Britain, it is possibly an attempt to adopt a [End Page 291] trait of American English. For instance, the character Alistair on the British sitcom As Time Goes By frequently uses Americanisms, including guy, in his attempts to emulate the speech of the elite, movers and shakers of the film, television, and publishing industries.

Whereas guy may or may not be a natural feature of non-American English, it may frequently be heard in the English of nonnative learners.

[from a handout for a Hindi-Urdu class made by a native Hindi-Urdu speaker, 1997]

34. A guy says: mAI jata hU
A girl says: mAI jai hU
I go-MASC PRES-sg. auxiliary
I go-FEM PRES-sg. auxiliary
  1. 35. Vy toze scitaete, cto vas prezident ploxoj gaj? you also consider that your president bad guy ‘Do you also think that your president is a bad guy?’ [guy picked up by a native speaker of Russian living in America, 1998]

  2. 36. When we did it with this guy here . . . [a Japanese speaker referring to a certain molecule, 1998] 11

Here we see guy used in various situations by speakers of different native languages. Guy is used by these speakers according to the model in figure 3. It is used in the guy/girl pair in (34), as a laid-back term for a ‘male human being’ as a spontaneous borrowing into Russian in (35), and in a deictic function in (36). These examples attest to the appeal of guy for learners of English. Perhaps, if we wish to identify some of the salient features of any language, we ought to look to the speech of foreign learners. We also find productive uses of guy in the English of nonnative speakers.

  1. 37. Oh guy! [the same native speaker of Russian as above, 1998]

In this example, guy is adopted in an exclamation structurally similar to oh boy, oh man, but with the sense of oh brother. The interchangeability of guy with words such as man, boy, or brother may be a still developing function of the semantic range of guy. The next section specifically explores the ways in which guy may or may not be representative of maleness or of the human race.


Precisely what guy cannot yet do that man can do is to represent the human race, although in the title of this paper I have used guy ‘human race’ for ironic effect. If we try to substitute guy for other expected male referents in various expressions such as golden guy for the expected golden boy, as in (38) below, the result is somewhat jarring, yet the phrase works—another attestation to the productivity of guy in contemporary American English. [End Page 292]

  1. 38. And the slew of players within striking distance seemed to relish the chance of taking on golf’s golden guy in the final round. [from an AP article in the News and Observer, 18 May 1997]

Other examples of this type may be found, such as a reference to the comedian Drew Carey as an everyguy ‘everyman’ or an article in a magazine in which the actor George Clooney discusses the significance of guyness. Another guy-based phrase appeared as the title of a 1993 album by the female recording artist Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville. In these examples, guy is used to represent maleness or human beings or to breathe new life into old expressions with man or boy. However, guy has not progressed so far that we might hear expressions such as All guys are created equal, the fall of guy, and so on with anything but humorous intentions. However, these examples, combined with the increasing preference for guy over man in more and more speech situations, show that a potentially fundamental change is taking place in a core lexical field in English.

3. A Controversial Sort of Guy

Although guy has developed in contemporary English according to the schema I propose in figure 3, it has not made it to this point without any protests. 12 Student groups at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have posted flyers with slogans such as “Women are not ‘guys,’ women are not ‘men’” (1997). The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker has expressed her distaste for referring to women as guys, and another Pulitzer Prize-winner, Douglas R. Hofstadter, has commented extensively on the use of guy in his recent book Le Ton beau de Marot. Hofstadter (1997, 201) claims that his entire book has been written in the “medium of nonsexist English.” He views all generic uses of polysemous masculine lexical items as sexist and applies disclaimers to their presence in his book when they occur in quotations. For each instance of generic man, he, or guy in a cited passage, Hofstadter describes that use in the index as “false generic,” “in citations as alleged generic,” or “used in citations.” He even says that when he makes use of generic guy, readers are to understand that the usage is “in quotes, signifying an invented persona and not my genuine authorial voice” (583). For Hofstadter, the uses of guy represent no small problem for English speakers.

In my view, the most pervasive—and, for that reason, by far the most serious—disease of sexist usage infecting contemporary American English is the to-many-people-innocuous-sounding phrase “you guys” (and related ways of using “guys” in directly addressing a group of people), which is by far more popular than the now-taboo sexist terms “man/men” ever were, in terms of applicability to a mixed-sex or [End Page 293] even all-female group. I find it an amazing irony that the fairly recent groundswell of popular acceptance of “you guys” is largely welcomed, rather than contested, by feminists of most stripes, the very same people who adamantly, angrily, and properly urged rejection of the very similar false generics “man”, “men”, “he”, and “him”. [202]

On this topic, Hofstadter’s own language is hardly objective or reserved. Describing the current state of guy in English, he uses such words and phrases as “deplorable,” “made me sick,” “disease,” “eerily parallel trend,” “strangely depressing,” “perverse,” “Yukkh!” and “this bizarre and troubling word.” In Hofstadter’s view, the use of guy is intricately connected to gender and power relations. We can account for its widespread use because the ‘male human being’ meaning of guy “[imbues] the word’s unconscious halo with the positive aura associated with being male in our society” (202).

Hofstadter’s commentary on guy goes only a short distance towards an analysis. Guy is predominantly masculine, even “basically someone American” (151), and all generic uses of guy, whether they be merely plural guys or specifically pronominal you guys, are equated and to be avoided because of their sexist nature. It is true that Hofstadter’s book is not intended as an academic essay or linguistic study, but his remarks on guy are now part of the public record. His commentary could have greatly benefited from more thorough analysis and less subjectivity, although he does present some interesting ideas such as the concept of “word halos” (certainly the polysemous nature of all such words as man, he, and guy is all available to speakers and listeners when they process language). He also notices that he is used as the default pronoun for any “little furry animal” (202) and briefly alludes to the development of guy-like expressions in other languages. 13 However, he merely views these constructions with contempt and sees their every occurrence as insidious. He simply assumes that the structure behind guy is mere sexism and concludes that there is no need to probe the issue further, even though “to fully explain the usage of the simple-seeming pair of words ‘guy’ and ‘guys’ would hugely advance our knowledge of the workings of the human mind” (Hofstadter 1997, 202).

Perhaps the real issue here for English is the existence of a cognitive framework in which strongly masculine words regularly show a development including specifically male meanings (man, he, guy) along with gender nonspecific terms 14 (e.g., man ‘human race’, generic he after loss of grammatical gender) and semantically bleached deictic pronouns (you guys) or vocatives (hey guys!), whereas, in English, feminine words do not undergo such changes. Understanding how these masculine words operate in such a continuum of meanings would greatly aid our conceptions of human cognition. Perhaps these developments do have something to do [End Page 294] with Hofstadter’s “positive aura associated with being male in our society”; however, rigorous cross-linguistic studies of diachronic developments are needed to identify the dynamics of such factors.

4. Conclusions

The functions of guy in English are by no means simple. In American English, guy has emerged with new polysemy developed according to the previously existing models, man and he. The renewal of such words is a cyclic phenomenon. The generic and plural inclusive meanings of man may be in decline, but the underlying structure within the language is not. The cognitive framework is still present and productive in the contemporary language, capable of creating a new generic noun as the development of guy demonstrates. The question of why an initially masculine lexical item may come to have generic singular and plural inclusive meanings has yet to be answered.

Guy has evolved from the colloquial slang of American speech, but, as its sporadic use in various literary contexts shows, it is still not a completely acceptable word in written English. Some claims of sexism in writing may be attributed to the fact that the guy/girl pair is firmly established in speech but may give way to combinations such as man/girl in writing because of the perceived substandard nature of the word guy. The relative lack of an outcry against guy up to this point would seem to be due to its absence in print. Guy likely will be subject to the same protests if it becomes more accepted as a literary word. But then we will be dealing not with a word whose generic meaning has already been reduced to aphorisms and legal or literary language but with a highly colloquial and widespread speech phenomenon.

What does the preference for guy over man in many contexts say about our culture or the psychological state of American society? The way guy is used and its range of meanings are primarily linguistic questions, but the preference for guy to man is a societal, philosophical, and psychological issue. What semantic connotations are associated with man and not with guy? Hofstadter (1997, 203) states that the attraction lurking behind guy is that “being a guy is what one really wants in this world, because guys get the perks.” For Hofstadter, this is the pernicious message perceived by women. But what is the attraction of guy for men? Are there aspects of morality, maturity, and personal responsibility associated with being a man that being a guy allows one to do away with or ignore for a time? How will the meaning of man change in the future? If the ‘male human being’ meaning is subsumed by guy and the ‘human race, human being’ meaning and other [End Page 295] generic and inclusive functions are lost, then will man go the way of the OE guma ‘male human being’ or OE wer ‘male human being, husband’? Clearly, we are witnessing the rapid ascent of guy, but what lexemes may yet become extinct due to its emergence?

Steven J. Clancy
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Steven J. Clancy is a doctoral candidate in Slavic Linguistics in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His dissertation research involves the concepts ‘be’ and ‘have’ in Slavic and other Indo-European languages. Other research interests include cognitive linguistics, Indo-European historical linguistics, literature, philosophy, and language pedagogy.


I would like to thank Laura Janda for her encouragement and suggestions. I also appreciate the useful comments of the reviewers.

1. Some of examples (1)–(8) are ambiguous and can also readily have a specifically masculine referent, particularly those preceded by the indefinite a.

2. Note, for example, the use of the expression cover your man overheard at an all-woman college intramural basketball team in 1996.

3. The use of singular they as a generic reference pronoun is particularly interesting for its elegance and for its consistency with other changes in English. Generic singular they along with its oblique forms, which has actually been in use for many centuries, is simpler and less cumbersome than collocations such as he or she, she or he, him or her, and so on or unpronounceable alternatives such as s/he, (s)he. Though some grammarians find the use of a plural pronoun in the singular to be particularly grating, one need only look to the historical spread of plural ye/you to replace the singular thou as an example of this phenomenon in English.

4. The origin of guy in Guy Fawkes is supported by the OED2 (1989), Lighter’s Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994-), Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang (1995), and the American Heritage Dictionary (1992). Partridge’s Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1989) offers a derivation from Yiddish goy ‘Gentile’, but Lighter specifically rejects this etymology.

5. I obtained samples from the Rice Thresher, the weekly college newspaper of Rice University, by searching its archives on the Internet. I chose this source for its excellent search capabilities at a time when relatively few “real” newspapers were available in a searchable format. I also chose this source and the Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for examples of journalistic writing that would not be so formally constrained as professional newspapers.

6. The use of you guys (= y’all) as a second-person plural pronoun is not discussed in this paper. These uses seem to be filling in for a lack in the pronoun system in English and not directly related to the other myriad uses of the word guy. However, this use of guy as a pronoun is likely connected with other deictic uses of guy, which likewise are beyond the range of the current study.

7. I thank Judith Ryan for this example of generic guy.

8. Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994-) cites generic reference for guy as early as 1927: “a person of either sex regarded as decent, down-to-earth, good company, etc.” However, for this as well as other uses of guy, I propose that the word has undergone a rapid “ascent” in recent decades, yielding the current widespread status and popularity of guy.

9. Note that these are set expressions with a single, phrasal stress; cf. He’s the good guy (one stress) and Kenneth’s a good guy (two stresses).

10. A Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English cites guy in British English as an adoption from American English that had taken place by 1903 but still had American overtones up through the middle of the twentieth century, achieving popularity only in the 1960s–70s, particularly in the language of the army (Partridge 1989).

11. I thank Christine Clancy for this deictic example of guy. The scientists I have spoken with on this topic have attested to the use of guy almost as a part of the jargon of scientific discourse.

12. The current usage guides I have consulted have no commentary on guy. Given its wide usage in speech but not in writing, perhaps it is not surprising that guy does not turn up in style manuals like man and he do. I did find a brief reference in Maggio’s Nonsexist Word Finder (1987), but it is not given any particular attention, whereas the entry on man and its related compounds takes up several pages.

13. Hofstadter (1997, 204–05) specifically mentions the following two expressions: Dutch plural jongens ‘boys’, which may apply to a mixed-sex or all-female group, and Chinese plural gēmenr ‘older brothers’ as a term of camaraderie among males and females.

14. This path of development has not always been from strongly masculine to generic meanings. Note the evolution of OE man(n) from primarily ‘human being’ to primarily ‘male human being’ discussed above.


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