Reader Jason recently asked, “What is the root of the word ‘guy‘?” I appreciate punsters and asking “The Word Guy” about “the word ‘guy'” is just too precious!
With this one, I decided to work backwards, starting with the more common meaning of guy as referring simply to a man. It’s older than dude – which I like better – but less Californian. The OED suggests that this sense of the word appeared in the US in the 19th century, with an example from Swell’s Night Guide (1847) that says, “I can’t tonight because I am going to be seduced by some rich, old Guy.” However, by 1863, the word had made its way across the pond to the UK as Charles Reade wrote in his Hard Cash, “I wouldn’t speak to you in the street for fear of disgracing you; I am such a poor little guy to be addressing a gentleman like you.”
But at the beginning of the 1800’s, a guy referred to someone of grotesque appearance, especially in relation to dress. This seems to have originated from the English practice of creating an effigy of Guy Fawkes, a 17th century Restorationist involved in what was called the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
Fawkes was a Roman Catholic who, along with a small cabal, wanted to restore a Catholic to the Protestant throne by blowing up the Houses of Parliament while King James I was in attendence. The plot was foiled and Fawkes was executed, although not in the manner actually prescribed. Being guilty of treason, he was supposed to be hung, drawn, and quartered, but he managed to jump off the gallows just as the noose was put on, and he broke his neck, thus avoiding the drawing and quartering.
In remembrance of the defeat of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, the government instituted what became known as Bonfire Night, a celebration of the deliverance of the Crown. Part of this involved the creation of an effigy of Guy Fawkes (called, not surprisingly, a guy) to burn on a fire. With the addition of fireworks, both public and private, this became an annual event but is now no longer a national activity of any significance.
But the word is much older than 1605 and the name Guy itself is an old one in English history. The ultimate origin seems to be from the word guide, meaning “one who leads.” The Old French verb guider meant “to lead,” and the Italian guido/guida (masculine and feminine forms respectively) refer to leaders. Given that “leaders” tended to be men, the use of the shortened form guy (or gye, gy, guye, or even guie) to mean a male seems to make sense.
In the 17th century, the word guy was used nautically to describe a rope used to guide or steady something being hoisted or lowered. The role was literally a “guide line” and, by extension, became guy-line or guy-rope to describe a piece of line used to keep a tent upright.
The use of guy as a verb dates back to the 14th century and guider. In 1374, Chaucer wrote; “Yow fiers god of arms…Be present and my song contynne and guy.” It also took on the meaning of leading an army or governing a country: “A kyng…moot don his diligence, His peple for to gye by prudence.” (Hoccleve, 1420).
And in the nautical arena, you would guy your your ship at the harbor or guy your sails to keep them under control.
In the mid-19th century, an interesting use of guy sprang up in the world of theatre. The word was used as slang to make something an object of ridicule of derisive wit. In his 1872 Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote, “The Roman street-boy who guyed the gladiators from the gallery.” And even in the 1970’s, Germaine Greer said in The Female Eunuch (1970) that “Vociferous women are guyed in the press.”
Finally, guy has also been used to mean “to go off; to run away.” (OED, Vol. VI, p. 976.)
OK, guys, that’s it for this posting. Keep the requests coming.