I grew up in the Midwest, where “you guys” is the preferred way to refer to a group of people, no matter their gender(s). I also lived in Texas for awhile, and have since adopted y’all because I’m lazy and it’s shorter.
Also it’s fun to say.
But where did the phrase “you guys” come from to start with? If you’re like me, you might never have wondered. But by not wondering, you would have missed out on this surprisingly interesting tale.
Let’s start with pronouns – the short words and phrases that take the places of nouns. They’re at the center of language, and they rarely change because they’re used so often. From pretty much the beginning of recorded English, there have been 3 types of person pronouns, each with singular and plural versions, and they’ve really not changed.
With one exception.
Here they are:
First person (referring to yourself)
Singular: I, me, my, mine
Plural: we, us, ours
Second person (addressing another person directly)
Singular: thou, thee, thine
Plural: you, ye, your
Third person (addressing or writing about people other than yourself or one specific person)
Singular: he, she, it, and they
The only thing that’s really changed since the 18th century is that we’ve dropped the second-person singular in almost all cases because you was doing double duty. Why?
Because at a certain point, referring to someone as “you” (second-person plural) became a way of denoting that you were giving them respect. The corollary there is that people stopped using “thou” (second-person singular) because it made it seem like they were being disrespectful.
Eventually, thou cleared away entirely, and ever since there’s been no real way to tell whether “you” is singular or plural.
People tried different ways to clarify: “yous,” “youse,” “you people,” “you folks,” and even “you-uns” were all attempted. But the only one that really stuck, funnily enough, was “y’all.”
Ok, here comes the surprising part – the entrance of the word “guy” on the scene.
The Gunpowder Plot was a scheme to explode 36 barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords in London. On November 5th, 1605, as Lords and Commons and bishops and other various nobles gathered for the annual opening of Parliament, the would-be arch-villain – one Guy Fawkes – was caught in the basement before he could light the fuse.
His name was on everyone’s lips as he was interrogated, tortured, tried, convicted and executed before the end of January 1606. But that wasn’t enough for the relieved legislators, who realized that they would likely have been killed if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded.
So they instituted a holiday as “an act for publick thanksgiving to Almighty God every year on the fifth day of November.”
Part of the celebrations included bonfires, which were used to burn effigies of the Pope, Guy Fawkes, and whomever else had fallen out of favor at the time. The effigies were collectively referred to as “guys.”
People began to use the word to refer to men of the lowest and most depraved order. Then, after many years, speakers and writers began to adopt the term to mean first working-class men, then all human males (of any age).
By the 20th century, it began to refer to groups of women, too.
While some people have expressed concerns that it’s not an equal term, I think the history proves that it actually might be – plus, who doesn’t empathize a little with Guy Fawkes since V for Vendetta came out?
And besides, if you want to find a new term, you’ll have to wait a couple hundred years for it to catch on.
Or you guys can all just start saying y’all instead.
Try it. You’ll like it, I swear.