The word “guy” in today’s vernacular can mean a male, a group of men, sometimes even a female, and a group of males or females, such as “those guys”. How did this come to be, and why and where did the term “guy” come from?
The origin of our use of the word “guy” started from an event that never actually took place but got pretty close. It all began over four hundred years ago in 1605 with a failed assassination plot by a group of thirteen English Catholics to destroy the British House of Lords and with it, the King of England, James I. Catholics had been repressed under Queen Elizabeth I, and even further when King James I took over the throne. He ordered that all Catholic priests leave the country and defined Catholicism as superstition in 1604. Even though Catholics had a belief that King James I would be different than his predecessor, it was not the case, and King James I was not tolerant of the Catholic religion. A series of conspiracies had been attempted against Queen Elizabeth I and King James I but none had been successful. The failed Gunpowder Plot, as this particular conspiracy of 1605 became to be known, was the one that was used as a way to get non-conforming Catholics under control while unifying the country.
Guy Fawkes is associated as the face of the Gunpowder Plot, but he in fact was a late addition to the group of conspirators. In 1605, Guy Fawkes was using the first name of Guido instead of Guy. He worked as a caretaker of the cellar beneath the House of Lords and used the alias, John Johnson. Fawkes, along with 12 other conspirators stored 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellar, and Fawkes was the one tasked to set the explosion that would kill King James I and his oldest son, as well as to destroy the House of Lords and the House of Commons on the State Opening of Parliament. But an anonymous letter was given to a member of parliament on October 26, 1605 that told of the plot. The cellars were searched after midnight on November 5, 1605, and Fawkes was arrested next to the 36 barrels of gunpowder.
Fawkes was taken to the Tower of London, tortured, and later confessed while also giving out the names of others involved in the conspiracy to blow up the House of Lords. He was hanged, drawn and quartered, and pieces of his body were sent to four corners of the country in January of 1606 as a warning that no one should try this sort of thing again.
How then did Guy Fawkes first name come to mean what it does today? The first name of Guy Fawkes, “Guy”, became associated with the plot and November 5th was quickly enacted as a day to celebrate, even being called Guy Fawkes Day (or Night) and Bonfire Night. The celebrations became a national day filled with fireworks where effigies of prominent Catholics, the Pope, and Guy Fawkes were burned. The word “guy” then became associated with a derogatory term for a man, usually meaning that a man was bad. It also had the meaning of “someone with a bizarre appearance”.
The word “guy” eventually spread to the United States where it presumably lost its context because the word “guy” began to be used simply to refer to a man or person while not always having a negative connotation. It crossed back over to Britain at some point with this new American meaning.
Even Guy Fawkes reputation has changed over time. His name began by being associated with a conspiracy and terrorism while today it has taken on a different form. One example was from the 2006 movie V for Vendetta. The character, V, uses a masked based on the caricature of Guy Fawkes. The mask that was used in V for Vendetta has been a symbol of the group Anonymous and also used by protesters worldwide as a symbol of protest and anonymity. That mask has been termed the Guy Fawkes mask.
There is still some debate whether a woman, or a group of women should be called “guy” or “guys”. Either way, the term had a dubious beginning and thankfully doesn’t refer to the same thing today. It’s a sure bet there would be a few dirty looks if it was.