Posted by: Jack Henry | October 29, 2019

Editor’s Corner: You

A few weeks ago, I announced Merriam-Webster’s addition of they/them/their as singular, non-binary pronouns. In response, my manager sent me an interesting article on the word “you.” It explains how we went from “thou” (second person singular) and you (second person plural), to just “you” to mean one person or many people. But the story doesn’t end there, and that is what this article is about. I had to cut pieces out because it was a little long, but if you want to read the whole thing, it is here: The Surprising Origins of the Phrase ‘You Guys’byAllan Metcalf.

… In addition to indicating an audience of two or more, the second-person plural (“you”) was trying to do double duty. It was becoming a sign of respect when addressed to one person. By implication, then, “thou” was stigmatized. If someone addressed you as “thou,” it became natural to assume that the speaker had less respect for you.

So over the course of around a thousand years, with plural “you” encroaching on the singular territory of “thou,” the latter finally gave up the struggle and yielded the singular second person to “you,” which was already the plural. Speakers and writers no longer could tell whether an instance of the second person was singular or plural.

For the next two centuries, people had to make do with this ambiguity, as they looked for a good way to signify a plural “you.”

They tried, for example, putting a plural “s” on “you,” making it “yous” or “youse,” both odd looking. Others tried adding a word after “you” to indicate plural: “you people,” “you folks” and “you ones,” or more colloquially “you-uns,” abbreviated “yinz.” Some added a word specifying the audience, like “you ladies.” None of these options had much widespread success, except for the special case of “you all,” also “y’all.”

Meanwhile, while no candidate was attractive enough to step into the shoes of “thou,” a word was born that would twist and turn on its way to success. It came from the terrifying near-success and utter defeat of the Gunpowder Plot, a scheme to explode 36 barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords in London on Nov. 5, 1605, when Lords and Commons and bishops and other nobility and royalty gathered in that one room for the annual opening of Parliament. The arch-villain who nearly succeeded in blowing to bits hundreds of leading officials of King James’ Protestant government…was an English Catholic gentleman and soldier named Guy Fawkes. He was in the basement under the House of Lords, ready to light the fuses, when a search party caught him just in time.

Soon his name was on everyone’s lips, as he was interrogated, tortured, tried, convicted and executed before the end of January 1606….

That led to the pivotal moment in the history of “guy”: Parliament approved a “Fifth of November Act,” that is, “An act for publick thanksgiving to Almighty God every year on the fifth day of November.” The new holiday would feature special religious services during the day and bonfires at night, lighting fires to mock the man who hadn’t succeeded.

In the fires they burned effigies of the Pope, Guy Fawkes and other archenemies of the moment. They referred to the effigies of Fawkes as “guys.” And then some people began to use “guys” to refer to actual people: men of the lowest and most depraved kind. This was early in the 18th century, more than 200 years ago.

Scarcely anybody noticed, but speakers and writers then began to view “guys” (not Guy) more positively. “Guys” began to shift meaning, to become a term for working-class men, then every human male, from baby boys to ancient men. Speakers and writers found it useful to have a generic term that didn’t require differentiating among categories of males.

Then by the middle of the 20th century, women began using the word too. They increasingly used “you guys” when addressing others in the plural, regardless of gender. More and more speakers unconsciously voted for “guys,” till that was that: it was the people’s choice.

In recent years, some concerned citizens have pushed back against the idea that it’s an egalitarian term, embracing us all—and it is of course possible that language could once again change. But regardless of our reasons, until an alternative gets enough votes to replace it, “guys” will retain the top spot in the second person plural domain of the English language.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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