Guys, amid the recent brouhaha over they as a singular (It’s here, it’s clear, get over it), Allan Metcalf noticed that, without thinking much about it, we in the United States have created a new second-person plural pronoun: you guys.
Describing the curious path by which the name of a sixteenth-century Roman Catholic plotter metamorphosed into a pronoun, Professor Metcalf, in The Life of Guy: Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Unlikely History of an Indispensable Word (Oxford University Press, 162 pages, $18.95) displays how historical events and cultural circumstances shape language.
He begins with the Reformation in England, recounting how Henry VIII’s break with Rome set up decades of violent back-and-forth with English Protestants and Catholics—which in time became a violent back-and-forth between English Protestants, Catholics, and Puritans.
The culminating act of violence, had it happened, would have been blowing up King James I in the House of Lords at the opening of Parliament in 1605, decapitating the Protestant English government. The plot was foiled when a plotter, Guy Fawkes, was discovered with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder and matches under the House of Lords on the night before Parliament opened.
A relieved Parliament enacted a law requiring religious and popular commemorations of the narrow escape every November 5, the anniversary of the foiled plot.
After that, Professor Metcalf explains, things started to get strange.
One of the popular celebrations was the bonfire, and when you have a bonfire, you like to throw things into it. On Gunpowder Treason Day, Guy Fawkes, who accidentally became the best-known of the thirteen plotters, “became a caricature effigy paraded and cast into the celebratory bonfire.” Usually along with an effigy of the pope, naturally. (The children’s chant “A penny for the Guy” was meant to finance the construction of such effigies.)
Over time, as the memory of the person Guy Fawkes faded, his first name became a common noun, guy, a generic term for bonfire effigies. Beyond that, it became a slang term for a man, particularly one held in low esteem.
The word crossed to America, where the association with Guy Fawkes faded away, because, Professor Metcalf explains, after the Revolution, Americans were unlikely to see as a villain someone who had revolted against the Crown. Guy became a casual, colloquial term for any man.
In twentieth-century America, the next transformation occurred, when the plural guys came to refer not only to a group of men, but a mixed group of men and women, and sometimes, alumnae of women’s colleges attest, a group of women.
Thus, Professor Metcalf argues, you guys is effectively a second-person plural pronoun, akin to the Southern y’all.
This has not been universally welcomed. Some sticklers want to limit guy to the masculine. Some feminists object to a male term being transformed into a term for women. Some Southerners get snippy when they hear you guys start to invade y’all territory. But language takes its own path.
Just as we collectively once came to drop thou and thee and make you either singular or plural, so did we develop you guys as a second-person pronoun: “Language generally isn’t logical, it’s just conventional, at least when know-it-all authorities aren’t involved. And they weren’t in this case. Nobody announced a competition for a second-person plural pronoun; nobody vetted proposals. Speakers and writers just used whatever came in their heads, usually not noticing the ad hoc circumstances that might call for particular choices of pronoun.”
It is much by such a conventional, undirected spread and acceptance that OK, which originated as a jokey illiterate spelling of all correct, became the United States’ most widespread contribution to world English, as Professor Metcalf has previously chronicled.
The Life of Guy is a charming little book, glancing at some things deep under the surface of language. You guys might want to give it a look.