The Explosive Origin of the word Guy

Hello,

This week’s word comes with thanks to friend of the blog, Damian T Gordon, and it’s a simple word with an explosive history – guy.

There are two nouns in English spelled as guy and both date to the 1600s. The first is a nautical one – a rope, chain, or wire which comes from Old French and the word guide. You’ll find guy-lines on sailing boats.

The second gives us the modern use (in American English since 1847) of guy to mean a person, usually male. Guy was used earlier in British English (1830s) for a poorly dressed man but originally it was associated with an effigy of Guy Fawkes (typically dressed in old cast off clothes) which were paraded through the streets by children on the 5th of November and then burned on top of a bonfire.

That explains where the word comes from but why were children burning guys in the first place? All the clues you need are in the rhyme which begins –

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

I won’t include the entire text as it descends into sectarianism. The 5th of November is when children, and adults, celebrate the foiling of Guy Fawke’s (1570-1606) plot to blow up the British Houses of Parliament at Westminster on that date in 1605.

Religion was a contentious issue in Britain at that time. Fawke’s and his fellow conspirators wanted to kill Protestant King James I and replace him with a Catholic monarch. When the plot was exposed they had already stockpiled gunpowder in a cellar beneath the parliament buildings and Guy was caught red handed there.

With Westminster behind scaffolding currently, we’ll make do with a red phone box

The 5th of November is still remembered with bonfires and fireworks in Britain and is more popular there than Halloween. Certain areas are particularly keen on the event. The town of Lewes has multiple competing Bonfire Societies battling for the best bonfire and display, often with topical characters burned alongside Fawkes.

Although born in England, Guy was also known as Guido, when fighting overseas so we narrowly avoided having a musical called “Guidos and Dolls”.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. Hello to several new readers of the blog, some of whom found me via the NaNoWriMo novel-writing challenge. I made it to 8,110 words today – so the month is off to a good start.

3 thoughts on “The Explosive Origin of the word Guy

  1. Rick Ellrod

    And of course we have guy wires on land, for things like telephone poles or antenna towers, no doubt from the same source as the nautical use.

    The fact that “guy” in the other sense is an eponym pushes the question back a stage. What does the name “Guy” mean, originally?

    Reply

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