Philip Norman: Hey, you guys, just give me a break

There’s a phrase that’s robbing almost any human transaction of seriousness

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The other day, I found myself standing behind a female acquaintance in one of those early-morning coffee shop queues. As we inched forward, she asked a question that was kindly enough meant, but phrased in a way that made me want to run screaming from the place : "What are you guys doing this weekend?" "You guys" of course did not refer to myself and a group of male ex-service or locker-room buddies, but encompassed my wife and 18 year-old daughter – and also by implication my mother-in-law and her sister from Washington who is currently staying with her. Apart from me, no one in the entire group remotely merits description as a "guy".

This sloppy, ingratiating, infuriating phrase is everywhere. In a restaurant, you have just reached the punch-line of your wittiest anecdote when your server butts in with "Are you guys ready to order dessert?" You are passing through some BAA-operated airport, thinking the misery and humiliation can't get any worse, when some uniformed Obergruppenführer appears and bawls, "Can you guys just wait over here?" "That's all we've got time for, guys," says Evan Davis on the Today programme, cutting short a discussion between meteorologists about the current sunny weather, while Britain's Got Talent has been a positive maelstrom of sycophantic gender-bending; "I know how hard you guys have worked ..." "We're really grateful to you guys who picked up the phone and voted for us..." "Congratulations, guys, you've got three yeses."

Like so much of our contemporary speech, the phrase came to us via American television, having already made that transition in meaning from exclusively male to mixed-gender largely by incessant use in the sitcom Friends. In America, though, "You guys" had an inoffensive, slightly dippy air, as when Rachel and Ross struggled with the conflicting impulses of friendship and lust.

Over here, it can have a more aggressive tinge: "I'm as good as you are, mate, even though I'm serving you pizza." It is a means by which almost any human transaction can be robbed of seriousness and reduced to the level of soap opera. Remember that moment of supreme national embarrassment when Tony Blair (that "straightforward kinda guy") used it even on his fellow EU heads of state?

The denizens of Planet Youguy, as I call them, are everywhere among us, supplementing that signature phrase with others just as recognisable, and supernaturally annoying.

On Planet Youguy, they do not say "I'm very well thank you", but "I'm good" (usually pronounced "gid".) They do not say, "I've finished eating'', but "I'm done". They do not say "Hello" but "Hey". In coffee shop queues, their most visible habitat, they do not say, "Please may I have a..?" but "Can I get a..?" They do not say "The thing is..." but (Simon Cowell is a major offender) "The thing is is..." The population of this vexatious asteroid inevitably includes almost everyone under the age of 20. But Planet Youguy places no age limit on citizenship, welcoming those of any generation who wish to seem youthful and hip, however much external appearances may be against them.

Thus young and old alike on Planet Youguy place invisible question-marks at the end of direct statements: "I'm really busy at the moment? ..." "He's such a nice guy?..." Young and old alike try to suggest kinship with rap and "street" culture via faux-Cockney accents, whatever social class or part of the country they come from.

"Street" talk demands that the "t" consonant is never sounded, which often can be something of a strain. Hence those media and political personalities – once again following Tony Blair's ludicrous lead – who at one moment can be heard saying "Quih a loh" and at the next, "Quite a lot". The other essential feature is the corruption of "o" and "ou" vowels into a whole range of mangled new forms, so that "good" becomes "gid", "road" becomes "rade", "home" becomes "ho-yoom" and TV continuity announcers tell us of the attractions tonight on "BBC Tuy".

Much of Planet Youguy can be accessed over the phone, identifiable by such phrases as "This is BT, my name's Tania, how can I help you today?" or "I'm just going to pop you on hold for a moment", or the egregious "Bear with me..." It is there whenever any group of individual workers, from telephone answerers at call centres to refuse-collectors, are described as a "team", or when a grim, disinterested face behind an official counter says "Just sign this for me", as if some intimate personal transaction is taking place.

I will not even try to convey my emotions a few years ago, at a film location with my wife, when a young woman with a clipboard (they so often have them) shouted, "Guys! Can you clear this area for me?" Planet Youguy's older denizens also borrow its youthful ones' air of bafflement at any uncomfortable contacts with the real world. You know those moments when you ask a teenage to clear up some unspeakable mess he or she has made, and are rewarded with rolling eye-whites and an incredulous look that says "Lunatic!" Hence the Planet Youguy phrase, "I'm like", meaning "I said" or "I replied", used when recounting any social confrontation to convey amused bewilderment on the speaker's part.

Its most common form is "I'm like ... OK!", conveying how one allowed one's adversary go on taking more and more rope until eventually they garroted themself. In conversation, "OK" takes the place of "Oh" or "I see", but again with the faint implication that you are mad and your Youguy interlocutor is gently humouring you. I know what you're saying: this is the modern world and if I don't like it, I should retreat to stuffy Planet Norman with my hands over my ears. But hey you guys, I need that early-morning cappuccino.

Philip Norman is the author of numerous fiction and non-fiction books, most recently John Lennon: The Life (HarperCollins)

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