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It’s a guy thing

December 2, 2015

Yesterday in the Times crossword there was a clue which went something like (I quote from memory): “Assumed appearance for people of both sexes, we hear” (5). It took me quite a while to get this. I had to wait until some other letters were filled in. But then it became clear: the answer is guise (= “assumed appearance”) and this sounds like (“we hear”) guys – which means people of both sexes. It took me a long time to tumble to this because initially one doesn’t think of the word guys as meaning people of both sexes. The musical Guys and Dolls is about men and women, isn’t it, not people of both sexes and women? But then I reflected that in modern idiom guys can indeed mean people of both sexes. You can say “Are you guys coming?” to a mixed-sex group without any ambiguity; it includes everyone. It could still be used to mean men-only if the context made that clear: “Sorry, darling, you can’t come to the poker night, it’s guys only”. But probably more often than not it is now gender-neutral. That’s quite an interesting change.

Yet in the singular the word still refers to a man and only a man. If I say “I opened the door and a guy was standing there” that could only be a man. I wonder if there are any other words which are gender-neutral in the plural but gender-specific in the singular?

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