Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
“Remember, remember the fifth of November, / The gunpowder treason and plot. / I see no reason why gunpowder treason / Should ever be forgot.” To many Americans who read this, it will immediately call to mind the graphic novel and then movie V for Vendetta. But in Britain, this little poem (or some version of it) is a centuries-old reminder of the foiling of what could have been the most horrific mass murder of the 17th century.
November 5 — two days ago — was Guy Fawkes Day, also called Bonfire Day. It is a British holiday commemorating the day in 1605 when London’s royal guards stopped Guy Fawkes from blowing up the Houses of Parliament while they were in session. He and his conspirators had secreted 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar under the House of Lords, with a plan to detonate them while King James I was attending a session of Parliament overhead. Had this Gunpowder Plot, as it came to be known, succeeded, it would likely have resulted in the death of the king, numerous members of Parliament, and countless civilians.
Word of the foiled plot spread quickly, and that very same night, to celebrate the king’s safety, people lit bonfires and burned effigies of Guy Fawkes. And before the next November 5 rolled around, it had been declared an official holiday.
Though some of the traditions have shifted over the years, the burning of Guy Fawkes in effigy has lasted. Back in the day, these effigies — human-shaped contraptions wearing shabby clothes and stuffed with rags and straw — were referred to simply as Guys. Effigies, on the whole, aren’t realistic works of art; they’re lumpy, fitted in outcast clothes, and often missing hands and feet. People took note of the odd appearance and started using the word guy to indicate any strangely dressed or odd-looking real-life fellow. In the United States, the word guy was diluted further and became an informal synonym for man and, in modern times, for a person of any gender.
So the next time you find yourself greeting friends with “Hey, guys!” or even saying “These guys are the best!” remember that English wouldn’t even have that innocuous word if a group of Englishmen hadn’t plotted to kill the members of its government all at once.
Guy as a name comes from French; it’s related to the Italian name Guido. Both of these names come not from Latin, as one might expect for two Romance languages, but from a Germanic origin that appeared in Old French as guie “a guide.” This is also the source of another guy: a rope, chain, or cable that serves as a brace or guide. Guylines, guy-wires, and guy-cables — or just guys — brace the tall masts of sailing ships against the wind, and they keep those tall red-and-white radio towers from crashing down.
Featured image: Shutterstock.com
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