My wife and I—we are in our early seventies—sit down in a local restaurant. After handing us menus, the waitress returns a few minutes later: “Are you guys ready to order?” she asks. The waitress, who is probably in her early twenties, could be my granddaughter, yet she calls us “guys.” A day later a young man selling apples at a local farm market says to my wife and me: “Thanks, guys.”
Guys, a collective noun, is now a common form of address that young people often use when talking to a group. I was part of a crowd filing out of a movie theater when the usher (a young man) said: “Guys, the exits and the bathrooms are to the left.” Middle-aged waiters and waitresses also say “guys,” but I’ve noticed that they usually prefer “folks,” as in: “What will it be, folks?” In the South a waitress will probably say, “Are y’all ready to order?”
It doesn’t bother me when my wife and I are addressed as “guys.” I use the word myself. Recently my wife and I had dinner with some old friends whom we hadn’t seen in three years: “Good to see you guys,” I said. Some friends of mine think it is disrespectful for a young person to call people in their sixties and seventies “guys.” Moreover, some people think “guys” and other informal forms of address are overly familiar. They point out that guys would never be used as a term of address in an elegant French or Italian restaurant or, say, by ushers at the Metropolitan Opera.
The use of guys to mean both men and women is relatively new. In the 1960s guys only signified men, as in the musical Guys and Dolls (1950). Of course, guys still often refers to a group of men. Guys originally referred to the effigies of Guy Fawkes that were paraded around and burned on Guy Fawkes Day. Fawkes was one of the main conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt by Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. A 75-year-old English friend of mine who grew up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne said that when he was a kid planning to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night, as it was called, someone would ask: “Do you have a guy?” Now the day is celebrated by bonfires and fireworks.
In 19th-century England “guy” lost its connection to Guy Fawkes but remained pejorative—signifying, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “a person of grotesque appearance, esp. with reference to dress.” In mid-19th-century America, however, “guy” was a neutral term for “a man, fellow.” In recent years, guy is often used to signify a macho male, as in, “What a guy.”
In Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), Fanny Trollope says nothing about “guys,” but she decries the “coarse familiarity, untempered by any shadow of respect, which is assumed by the grossest and the lowest in their intercourse with the highest and most refined.” Mrs. Trollope, who lived in the United States in the late 1820s, was irritated by the “extraordinary familiarity” of a neighbor who always addressed her sons by their Christian names, “excepting when she substituted the word ‘honey.’ ” This “familiarity of address,” Mrs. Trollope adds, “I afterwards found was universal throughout all ranks in the United States.”
Since colonial times familiarity of address has been the norm here. Most Americans strongly believe that their country is a land of equality, so at social gatherings there is no obligation to be deferential to anyone. Or as the legendary figure Paul Bunyan put it, “Since becoming a Real American, I can look any man straight in the eye and tell him to go to hell!” To be sure, in colonial times many, perhaps most, Americans did not regard blacks as equal. Even long after the Civil War some whites called blacks “boy,”
Mrs. Trollope implies that first names should only be used by people who know each other well. But Americans have always been quick to address strangers by their first names. At social gatherings Americans usually address each other by their first names soon after being introduced. Nowadays some people don’t even mention their last name when introducing themselves.
I’m not annoyed if someone I’ve just met calls me Steve at a social gathering, but I am annoyed if someone calls me Steve in a business transaction. I expect a salesman, and even a physician, to call me by my last name and refrain from using his or her first name. I don’t mind it if a waitress calls me “honey,” but I am irritated when a waiter says, “I’m Joe and here to serve you.” I like the fact that the checkout person I usually go to at a local supermarket calls me “Mr. Miller.” I don’t want to call him by his first name, which is on his name tag, so I just say, “Good morning.” I hate it when I answer the phone and a telemarketer says “Steve!”
But I’m not rigid about using last names in a business transaction. I’ve been going to the same Puerto Rican barber for 30 years. He usually first addresses me as Señor Miller, but when we are chatting, he often switches to Steve. I call him Ralph. (In Spanish he is Raife.)
Like everyone, I’ve been addressed in a variety of ways. When I was a kid my friends usually said, “Hey, Miller!” An unpleasant barber used to say to me, “Son, sit still!” I remember a mean-looking teenager yelling at me, “Hey, you, c’mere!” Instead of running away, I obeyed his command—and he punched me in the face. I have no idea why. A few weeks ago, when I met an old friend for lunch, I said, “Hey, man, how’s it going?” Since my hair now is grayish-white, I am usually addressed as “sir” when I’m by myself.
Do I like “guys” because it makes me feel younger to be in a group addressed as “guys”? Not at all. I know the waitress thinks I’m a geezer. I like the word “guys” for a simple reason: It is a friendly but not overly familiar one-size-fits-all appellation. Young or old, rich or poor, Harvard graduate or high school dropout, fifth-generation American or new immigrant—all Americans are guys.
Stephen Miller is the author of Conversation: A History of a Declining Art.