"You're such a guy," says the woman to her man, imputing either that he is thrillingly red-blooded or too pigheaded to ask for directions.
In olden times -- a period from the 17th-century terrorist named Guy Fawkes through Damon Runyon's Guys and Dolls to about a dozen years ago -- the word guy denoted a man. In the singular, it still does: a guy thing connotes an activity understandable only to the male.
That's why the writers of copy selling sildenafil citrate at Pfizer pharmaceuticals chose that informal word to advertise their product to "guys with ED," repeating that reg'lar feller noun in explaining that Viagra is "for guys with erectile dysfunction." Asked why the word "men" was not used in the otherwise formal copy, a spokesman for the drug company replied: "The topic of ED often prompts nervousness, embarrassment and even fear .... We've found that men sometimes related better to less formal communication about this topic, and when we're trying to achieve an informal tone, the word guys is appropriate." (Observed the poet W.H. Auden in 1946: "Thou shalt not be on friendly terms/With guys in advertising firms.")
I noted here last year that much of the badness has been leached out of the phrase bad guys, which is often followed with a "but," as a State Department spokesman's recent explanation of failure to go after Osama bin Laden in the 1990s: "Yes, he was a bad guy, but he was one of many."
In a recent review of a film made from a gripping John Le Carre novel, the Wall Street Journal headlined: "A Tale of Global Bad Guys, Constant Gardener Putters, But It Doesn't Dig Deep." A bad guy is no longer simply the opposite of "good guy;" the ensuing but signals the vitiation of the villainous sting of depravity. No longer do we have scoundrel, malefactor, blackguard, monster or Hamlet's "Bloody, bawdy ... remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!"; we have merely the bad guy, but -- just another type of the familiar guy.
The word's warm informality also makes it usable as what might be called an adverbial noun, modified by an adjective. Those uncomfortable clearly identifying someone as black, or a Jew, or a Pole often say "he's a black guy" or a Jewish guy, or a Polish guy or a gay guy, with the noun taking the perceived sting out of the racial, religious, ethnic or sexual-orientation description.
The cultural critic Leslie Savan catches this nuance in her book Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: "To be called `a [blank] guy' can plunk a male from any occupation or background right into the heart of affable, knucklehead America."
In the past, the plural guys had a likable, Middle American male connotation; in Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys, the humorist notes that Doberman pinschers are men while Labrador retrievers are guys. But these days, the addition of the "s" has led to the neutering of guy. You guys is no longer limited to males; it can be a group of men and women, or even a group solely of women.
What caused this?
"I think we're desperate for a plural `you' in contemporary English," says Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley. "The South has y'all and some New Yorkers have youse, but the rest of us have nothing. It was dumb of our ancestors to jettison thou." -- Politicians have the nonregional you folks.
How come a group of women can be called guys? For groups of women, Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, always uses guys, never gals.
"It's not unusual for the male to include the female and for the female not to include the male. Think about clothes; it's common for women to wear clothes that look like men's clothes, but for a man to wear very feminine clothes is different," she said.
Only in the plural is a woman likely to be called a guy. "You can say, `Call Mary and Jane and see if those guys want to come to dinner tonight,'" notes Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor at Stanford, "but you can't say, `I wanted to invite Alice, but the guy wasn't answering her calls.' This usage may be related to the tendency to use guy as a kind of perky pseudo-pronoun -- nowadays you hear people using a phrase like `those guys' to refer to everything from ski boots to PowerPoint slides."
I would agree that the case is made for guy in the singular to apply to a man, but my "cable guy" is a woman.
ANKLE OF AMBIGUITY
A Viacom "group prexy ... has ankled the company in a surprise move," reported Variety, and on the same front page headlined a shakeup at Paramount studios, "Tobey ankles in Par revamp." Bernard Ferrari of New York sent along the clipping with the query "Why such equivocation?"
Diplomats call such a use of language "creative ambiguity." Variety, the "show-biz bible" that celebrates its 100th anniversary this month, likes the verb to ankle because it has always reveled in the jargon of the industry it covers. Some familiar words, like punch line and payola, first appeared in Variety; a hundred other whammo coinages were popularized there.
"Variety was founded in 1905 and used street lingo," says Tim Gray. "It was fun, and easier to say a play `had legs,' for example, than to say it had a good chance of running a long time."
Why ankle, which has long had a general slang meaning of "to walk?"
"Hollywood is filled with egos. A lot of times, a studio will tell us that they let somebody go, and the exec will say, `I wasn't fired, I quit!' Both sides claim it was their decision. We need that equivocation," he said.
Why not depart, leave or exit? Gray's answer: "Ankle is more fun." (I would have checked this out with a scribbler source, but he left to ink a pact to pen a blind put pilot for a boffo biopic.)
Gray is Variety's new editor. Years ago, his predecessor, Jonathan Taylor, ankled.
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