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Guy, Guys, and Gender Neutrality

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Despite its decidedly male semantic core, the English word guy is in some contexts truly generic - such as when a server approaches a mixed-gender group at a restaurant and asks, "Can I get you guys something to drink?" Clancy (1999) draws an analogy between the meaning schema of guy, man, and he, concluding that all three exhibit the same pattern of gender bias. He, like Hofstadter (1997), notes that use of guy as a generic has slipped into common usage with no strong backlash from those that decry the use of man and he and generics. Clancy suggests this is because guy is rarely seen in print, while Hofstadter cites the positive masculine aura of the word. However, there are some marked contrasts in the usage of man, he, and guy in their "gender neutral" contexts that call into question the degree to which comparisons between them are valid. Moreover, examining these differences may provide a better explanation for the spread of the use of guy in mixed or gender-unspecified contexts and for why guy has crept in under the radar of an increasingly gender-aware society. The corpus study presented here forces us to consider one more possibility: that guy in North American English is truly polysemous in way that man and he never have been.
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Keywords: English; gender; gender neutrality; polysemy; semantic shift

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2004

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  • This publication consists of the proceedings of the main session and any parasessions from the annual meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society.
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