“So sorry to hear of your loss,” I wrote. “We’ll be thinking of you guys.”
It was an email to friends ten years our senior, a couple who had recently lost a father 94 years old. Not to Coronavirus but to plain old old age. It was an ordinary passing–although no passing is ever really ordinary. I re-read the sentence, stuck on “you guys,” thought about it, then rewrote. “I understand you’ve had a death in the family. So very sorry.”
You guys? Really?
I know these people well enough to be sure they would not object to being “you guys.” Who would object? Grateful for the expression of sympathy, they probably wouldn’t even notice. But somehow, the term didn’t feel right. Any more than it would have felt right to tell them, “See you at the funeral, you guys.”
Last summer at a wedding my wife and I attended, during toast time at the reception, the brother of the bride, an impressive fellow impeccably decked out in a black tux, delivered a long and engaging speech. He’d obviously thought about what he was going to say, but maybe hadn’t rehearsed it much. He would begin to finish his remarks, then remember something he’d left out. “Wait,” he’d say. “There’s another thing I need to tell you guys.” He’d riff on the new subject, run out of things to say about that, start a little peroration, then, “But just one more thing, you guys.” He really stretched it out, until most of us guys I think had started to get a little restless.
Man and woman, boy and girl alike, we’re all guys these days.
Guys, it is true, comes in handy. It is a warm, readily available plural, like folks.
Hey, folks, nice to see you again.
What can I help you with, folks?
That’s all, folks!
Except guys is not like folks. Take the s off folks and you get an archaic-sounding noun used mainly by older folk. More commonly, minus the s you get an adjective. Folk lore. Folk music. Folk tales.
Take the s of guys and, it ain’t complicated, you get a dude. What’s that guy looking at?
Not only do you get a dude, you also get a proper name for a dude.
When I was a kid there was a guy in my home town named Guy Welch. I’d say he’s the only Guy I’ve ever known. In the years after that, Guy never rose very high on the list of popular names for baby boys. Today, I have no Guys in my address book. But if you look into it, there are a few guys named Guy in popular culture and in history: Guy Pierce, Guy Ritchie, Guy Fieri, a tennis player named Guy Forget, Guy Lombardo. Pope Clement IV (b 1190) was a Guy. Guy Fawkes (b 1570) was a very important Guy. The first Baron of Dorchester (b 1724), he was a guy named Guy. Then there’s the name that rhymes with key, I mean Guy (Ghee). Guy de Maupassant, for example, and the majority of Canadian hockey players.
The key Guy (not Ghee), the one we can thank for all of us being guys today, is Guy Fawkes, a Catholic terrorist who planned to blow up Parliament in 1605. The plot failed. Since then, for hundreds of years, on the night of November 5, that Guy was been burnt in effigy, and those effigies were commonly referred to as Guys. By the 19th century guy began to signify “any scary-looking or badly-dressed person,” according to the Boston Globe, until, in 20th century American, guys became a term that designates everyone.
Today guys are also gals. The term is gender-neutral. The reverse, in our guy-centric language, is not true. If you say, “There’s another thing I need to tell you gals,” you’re talking to women.
Does this guy-gal thing matter? It depends on the person you’re talking to.
While guy comes from a famous Guy, and probably, etymologically speaking, from the Italian Guido (Guy Fawkes is also referred to as Guido Johnson), gal’s origins are pretty mundane. According to my grammar detective, “Gal first appeared as slang in England in the late 18th century and originated as a Cockney pronunciation of the word ‘girl.” Gel, then gal.
In an Atlantic Monthly article titled “I’m a Gal, Here Me Roar,” Lily Rothman observes, “If all who identify as female were to go from girl to woman when they turned 18—or 21 or 13 or 16, the scales of language would still be unbalanced. A boy doesn’t just instantly become a man: he gets to be a guy.” Rothman is very pro-gal. She writes, “Gal has all the best qualities of guy. It’s casual. It’s all-inclusive. It’s friendly and fun. It’s short and sweet.”
I have an acquaintance who operates a small business. In conversation he will occasionally refer to a couple gals they have working in the office. I kind of duck my head when I hear that. Is gal okay?
On a helpful website called GirlsCantWhat? hundreds of people weighed in on the issue. Herewith some responses to the question, Is gal okay?
Lorna Jane: Here in the UK we don’t use “gal” as a common form of address but I don’t think it’s offensive.
Anita: Gal is very offensive to me.
Sue Mam: Gal is offensive to me too.
Barbara Wilson: The word Gal was a derogatory word used in the South to demean women of color…I speak from experience.
Lissa: I think Gal is fine, I personally don’t like to be called a mam, because I think it sounds old.
Bunny Words: Gal is very offensive to me.
Marie: Everyone I know who identifies as a gal is gay.
Ann Hill: Gal is very offensive. No matter how many times I’ve told my husband this he still says weather gal or refers to women physicians as gals.
Gretchen: As I see it, it’s not offensive. I think it is the equivalent to “guy”.
Beth: “Gal” just needs to be dropped. I am a white woman and anyone who refers to me as a gal will get called on it.
Paula the Surf Mom: This PC stuff just goes too far sometimes… There is nothing wrong with “Gal”
Jeff Walker: What offends you about the word gal? I think the word woman is much more offensive when used in a sentence.
Mary: Jeff, you are not a woman.
Some years back, in a class I was teaching, a woman sitting in the back of the room corrected me when I referred to her as African-American. She said she was Black. And I thought: of course you are. To every extent possible, you get to decide what to call yourself. And the rest of us can just get over it.
I’ve been trying to remember how I used to greet a class when I was still teaching. Good morning, class. Hello, students. Hey, all. S’up, everybody. And, yes, probably on occasions, Hey, guys. A prof whose class I took when I was undergrad always said, Good morning, scholars. In grad school, the most engaging lecturer I ever listened to always sauntered breezily into class and said, Hello, good people.
Salutations, obviously, are situation sensitive. Friends, Romans, you guys: lend me your ears…. Four score and seven years ago some folks brought forth on this continent…
In June of 1993, Liz Phair produced an album called “Exile in Guyville,” a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main St.” She says of the LP, “[There was] this kind of guy mentality, you know, where men are men and women are learning. [Guyville guys] always dominated the stereo like it was their music. They’d talk about it, and I would just sit on the sidelines.”
Perhaps there is no exit from guyville, in music and in daily life, unless we really mind our mouths, one guy and one gal at a time, choosing our words carefully. Hey,
guys, good to see you. How you guys doing? What’re you guys up to? Mind if I join you guys?
One guy less here and there, who would possibly notice?