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Language is a funny thing and no language is as funny, weird or baffling as English. Perhaps more than any other tongue, English has been influenced by almost every culture and language it has come into contact with. The purpose of this series is to highlight some of the more interesting instances where an event, cultural practice or person has entered the vocabulary of the modern English speaker.

The word ‘guy’ is one of the more generic words in the modern English language and, at least at first glance, doesn’t appear to warrant a dedicated article such as this one by such a widely known and well-respected publication as Real History. Wrong.

In its original form, Guy was a name, found most commonly in the Romance languages of France, Spain and Italy. In French, it was pronounced ‘G-ee’. The name was transported across the English Channel when the Normans conquered England in 1066, where it would eventually assume its current pronunciation.

So how did a name evolve into a generic word for a man?

The answer lies in the most famous Guy of them all: Guy Fawkes.

At the turn of the 17th Century, Europe was bitterly divided along religious lines as a result of the Protestant Reformation of the previous centuries. These divisions would later trigger the European Wars of Religion, which would consume most of the Continent for the rest of the century.

Since the death of Mary I of England (known as Bloody Mary for her persecution of Anglicans that refused to denounce their ‘heretic’ faith) in 1558, English Catholics had been repressed. When James I assumed the throne in 1603, Catholic hopes of greater tolerance quickly faded and the policies of repression looked set to continue. Indeed, throughout his reign, James came under pressure from the Privy Council to become even less tolerant towards Catholics.

In 1604, a small group of dissident English Catholics formed a plan to assassinate both King James and Henry, Prince of Wales and place the nine-year-old Elizabeth (second in the line of succession) on the throne as a Catholic head of state. This would be achieved in spectacular fashion: by blowing up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605.

The conspirators managed to hide 36 barrels of gunpowder in the undercroft beneath the House of Lords. Modern reenactments discovered that the explosion would have been powerful enough to kill anyone within 100 metres (330 feet). One of their number would remain in the undercroft to light the fuse at the appointed time before making his escape. That man was Guy Fawkes.

guy fawkes
Guy Fawkes

However, it seems that in the weeks leading up to the big day, some among the conspirators expressed their concern for the safety of the few Catholics present in the House of Lords. Just over a week before the State Opening of Parliament, an anonymous letter was sent to William Parker, Baron of Monteagle, warning him not to attend the State Opening.

Concerned, Monteagle passed the letter on to the Earl of Salisbury (chief advisor and spymaster to the King), who in turn passed it on to James. The King apparently deduced from the use of the word ‘blow’ that the threat involved gunpowder.

The King’s soldiers were ordered to search Parliament from top to bottom. In the undercroft, they discovered Fawkes and, upon investigating a suspicious pile of firewood, the 36 barrels of gunpowder. Fawkes was found to be carrying a pocket watch and several slow fuses. He was immediately arrested. The so-called Gunpowder Plot had been foiled.

The preserved Monteagle Letter

Subsequent investigations, including the torture of Fawkes to point where he could barely sign his own confession, led to the arrest of the remaining conspirators.

The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot and the Taking of Guy Fawkes by Henry Perronet Briggs, 1823

November 5 quickly became a day of celebration for the people of England, with the use of fireworks to commemorate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. Later, it became known variously as Fireworks Night, Guy Fawkes Night and Bonfire Night. Children constructed effigies of Fawkes (dressed in old clothes and wearing a grotesque mask), which became known as ‘guys’, that were thrown onto the bonfires.

By the 19th Century, a ‘guy’ had come to mean an oddly dressed individual. When the word was imported into American English, it lost its pejorative associations and, by the 20th Century, had come to simply mean any male person. With the spread of American culture during that century, the word (with its ‘new’, generic meaning) was re-imported back into the language of the Mother Country.

The famous Guy Fawkes mask achieved international notoriety largely due to its use in the ‘V for Vendetta’ comic series and the subsequent 2005 movie adaption.

So there you have it. It turns out that that bloke you know isn’t called ‘Guy’ because his parents were spectacularly unimaginative, as you had (don’t lie) previously suspected.


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