Dictionary of Historical Allusions and Eponyms by Auchter
GUY: “In American slang, a man or fellow; in Britain, a person of ridiculous or bizarre appearance.”
In American slang, GUY has been completely severed from its origins, which were somewhat sinister. It derives from Guy Fawkes (1570-1606), an English Catholic living in an age when being Catholic was hazardous to one’s health. Fawke’s religious zeal prompted him to leave England and seek adventure on the Continent, where he joined the Spanish army and fought against Protestants in the Netherlands.
Meanwhile in England, James I took the throne, amid hopes from English Catholics that he would rescind some of the more punitive anti-Catholic legislation. Parliament as a whole did not share the king’s interest in greater religious toleration. Since Parliament held the purse strings, James, who was always in desperate need of funds, was forced to compromise his ideals. The maxim that fanatic persecution breeds fanatic retaliation proved to be true, and in 1605 a group of militant Catholics devised a scheme to assassinate the king, the queen, and the entire Parliament. The conspirators felt that they needed a man with military training to mastermind the plan, and Guy Fawkes was persuaded to return England to assist the plotters. The idea was to pack a tunnel underneath Parliament with gunpowder and ignite it on 5 November 1605, when the king was scheduled to open Parliament. Most of the important Protestant leaders of the country would be present at this grand ceremony. On the eve of the scheduled day the tunnel was loaded with 36 barrels of gunpowder, with Fawkes standing guard.
One of the conspirators, Francis Tresham, had warned his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, not to attend Parliament on November 5, and Monteagle relayed the information to the authorities. At 2:00 A.M., Fawkes was arrested. Under torture he revealed the names of his fellow conspirators, and all were arrested and sentenced to death. Public outrage over the attempt on the king’s life, combined with anti-Catholic hysteria, guaranteed that the execution of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators would draw huge crowds. Grotesque effigies of Guy Fawkes were paraded through the streets and ritualistically tortured and burned. The condemned suffered the traditional death of traitors: they were carried through the streets, hanged, cut down while still living, disemboweled, and quartered.
Parliament subsequently declare November 5 “a holiday for ever in thankfulness to God for our deliverance and detestation of the Papists.” It is still celebrated in England, and grotesquely garbed effigies are burned in conjunction with a huge fireworks display. Other effigies of unpopular persons have been traditionally displayed during Guy Fawkes Day, and by extension they were also called ‘guys.’ In England, the word ‘guy’ gradually came to mean any man of gaudy, obnoxious appearance. By the 1840s the word had crossed the Atlantic to the United States, but it then lost its negative association.
Oxford English Dictionary
GUY: 1a) An effigy of Guy Fawkes traditionally burnt on the evening of November the Fifth, usually with a display of fireworks. Also in full ‘Guy Fawkes.’ GUYS were formerly paraded about in the streets on the anniversary of the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ (Nov. 5). They are now more frequently exhibited by children collecting money for fireworks during the days preceding Nov. 5.
The figure is habited in grotesquely ragged and ill-assorted garments (whence sense 2b below), and was formerly accompanied by other similar effigies (representing unpopular persons), to which the name of GUYS is often given by extension.
1b) Guy Fawkes day (night), 5 Nov., the anniversary of the ‘Gunpowder plot’.<1806 “A month ago there was neither shape nor make in me . . . No GUY ever matched me.”--in ‘Letters of C. K. Sharpe’ (1888) by W. Burrell, I. page 277: >
2) A person of grotesque appearance, esp. with reference to dress; a ‘fright’.<1825 ‘Every-day Book’ by W. Hone, page 1430/2: “GUY FAWKES-DAY, or, as they as often call it, ‘Pope-day’, is a holiday, and . . . , on account of its festivous enjoyment, is the greatest holiday of the season.”>
3d) A man, fellow. Originally U.S.: The earliest examples may be influenced by sense 2.<1836 ‘Letters from Madras’ (1843), page 9: “The gentlemen are all ‘rigged Tropical’, . . . grisly GUYS some of them turn out!”>
<1875 ‘Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo’ by R. F. Burton, II. page 145: “He appeared habited in the usual GUY style: a gaudy fancy helmet [etc.].”>
<1847 ‘Swell's Night Guide,’ page 41: “I can't tonight, for I am going to be seduced by a rich old GUY.”>
Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins
GUY: American expressions often vary greatly in meaning from their identical British cousins. ‘A regular guy’ to many Englishman means ‘a thoroughly grotesque person,’ not ‘a decent chap’ at all. The difference it not as pronounce as in the past, but the American meaning still has a strange ring to British ears. For the English, ‘guy’ owes its origin to the grotesque effigies of Guy Fawkes, a leader of the infamous Gunpowder plot, which are carried through the streets of England and are burnt in bonfires on November 5, Guy Fawkes Day. All of the festivities through the years probably mellowed the meaning of the word to include both good and bad guys. But only in America, far removed from the Gunpowder Plot in distance as well as time, is ‘guy’ widely used for any ‘chap’ or ‘fellow,’ no ridicule intended. In England to this day ‘guy’ remains a ridiculous-looking person. Since 1970 GUYS in America has been used in referring to women, especially in mixed groups of men and women (i.e. “Do you guys want to come over?”). American playwright Eugene O’Neill was the first person to record this last use of ‘guy,’ in a 1927 letter to a friend; it became widely used by both men and women in the next ten years or so.
Ken G – March 25, 2004