(Niels Linneberg/ Flickr )

“Guys” should be one of the most benign and neutral words in the English language. In the most literal sense, it just means men. Boys. People, if we’re being modern, which hopefully we are.

But on the Internet, that fabled land of linguistic invention and abuse, guys has gradually, subtly taken on a second purpose. It’s the quickest, shortest way to communicate that you’re not entirely serious. A sort of prefix that, slapped in front of an otherwise sober sentence, makes it clear that you too can joke around.

Consider the difference between these two headlines:

“New York City physician tested positive for Ebola”
“Guys, a New York City physician tested positive for Ebola”

It’s subtle, sure, but once you’re on the lookout for this weird linguistic tic, you tend to see it everywhere. In tweets. In headlines. In Facebook statuses, where the word rears like a Shakespearean apostrophe: “O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, / That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!” Except now, of course, the appeal is less to the corpse of Julius Caesar … and more to some amorphous, unseen audience, dispersed behind their computer screens.

Guys, something is going on here. The question — which we put to a few linguists — is what.

“Denotatively, this is an established use of ‘guys’ to mean ‘people’ — that use goes back a while, probably to the mid-1900s,” said Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and editor at Merriam-Webster. (And, incidentally, a very good Twitter follow.) “It’s the connotation and tone on social media that seems to be new, and it looks like that use is still emerging.”

That social media use, Stamper says, is more vocative than anything else: It often “heralds an announcement of some sort,” she says, kind of like “the everyman’s ‘lo.’ ” But unlike “lo,” of course, the tone of “guys” is vaguely jokey, a cross between sarcasm and self-deprecation.

“Lo, a New York City physician tested positive for Ebola”; “Guys, a New York City physician tested positive for Ebola.” You see the difference.

But how an innocent-sounding word like “guys” came to be the Internet’s favorite herald is a slightly more complicated story. The word has surprisingly black roots: It’s derived, etymologists believe, from the name Guy Fawkes, one of the leaders of the Gunpowder Plot that attempted to assassinate King James I in 1605. Years after Fawkes’s plan was foiled, British children paraded his effigy around on Nov. 5 — a custom that, over the course of decades, made “guy” a sort of slang, first for a poorly dressed person, and then more generally for a man ( … of any wardrobe).


Frequency of the word “guys” in movies and TV shows, 1930 to present. (Ben Schmidt/Bookworm)

By the early 1930s, says Ben Zimmer — a linguist and frequent commentator on everything from “stalking” to “czars” —Americans were just beginning to use “guys” to indicate people of either gender. But guys was always a really weird word, its exact definition changing based on context. Consider this: I might address a group of female co-workers as “guys,” as in “hey guys.” But if I were describing the encounter later, I’d never say “Oh yeah, I said ‘hi’ to some guys from the newsroom.” Guys is only friendly, only gender-neutral, when we’re speaking directly to the “guy” himself.

“Guys in the expression ‘you guys’ is lexically meaningless, because it does not particularize you,” wrote linguist Sarah Lawson in 1982, picking up a thread that Twitter and its ilk would really run with later. “Rather, it serves as almost a suffix to you to suggest friendliness, camaraderie, informality. Even when the tone is not very friendly (‘Hey, you guys!’ ‘Cut it out, you guys!’) the “you guys” keeps the slang register and makes the remonstration sound less angry than it might otherwise.”

In other words, “guys” may be the single most perfect form of address for the infamously sincerity-adverse Web.

It makes sense, then, that Zimmer credits modern Internet usage of the word to the sarcasm-inflected headlines of Gawker and the Awl, sites that have long specialized in a sort of cool, removed irony. But even they may have had help: The popular sitcom “Friends,” which ran from 1994 to 2004 — notably, a time at which many Awl and Gawker writers were coming of age — used the word “guys” so frequently that language researcher Theresa Heyd used it as a launching point for her 2010 discourse on language change.

“I wouldn’t discount ‘Friends’ as an influence on how people currently use ‘guys,’ ” Zimmer said. “Perhaps there’s an echo of the staginess of ‘Friends’ when people use ‘guys’ now, which adds to the ironic distance someone can create by starting a tweet or snarky headline” that way.

Wherever the current usage comes from, it’s undoubtedly on the rise — online and off. Google’s Ngram, which measures word use over time in books, and Ben Schmidt’s Bookworm, which does the same for TV and movies, both register a steady climb in the use of “guys” since at least the early ’90s. And on Twitter, well, evidence is everywhere.

Which is just proof, perhaps, that nothing new really ever is: Even in our most self-consciously modern, snarky spaces, we borrow from history, pop culture and art. That’s legitimately pretty cool, you guys.

Or better yet: Guys, that is legitimately cool.