The Grammarphobia Blog

It’s a guy thing

Q: Hi, guys. Is it true that the term “guy” is derived from Guy Fawkes?

A: Yes, it’s true, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, but there were a few twists and turns along the way.

To begin at the beginning, the word “guy” first appeared in English in the mid-1300s, meaning a guide or a conductor, but that usage is now considered obsolete.

In the early 1600s, the term came to mean a rope used to guide or secure something on a ship. It still has that nautical meaning today. And we often refer to guide wires as “guy” wires.

So who’s responsible for the “guy” that refers to a man or a fellow? The culprit, as Ayto points out, is indeed Guy Fawkes, one of the leaders of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in England.

The term “guy” later came to mean an effigy of Guy Fawkes paraded through the streets and burned on the anniversary of the plot. The first published reference for this usage in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1806.

By the 1830s, the word “guy” was being used for a person of grotesque appearance, especially someone dressed in a bizarre way. And a decade later, bingo, it meant a man or a fellow – that is, a regular guy. (These days, even gals are often referred to as “guys.”)

Although the OED says the use of guy to mean man or fellow is of American origin, the first citation in the dictionary is from Swell’s Night Guide (1847), a book about nightlife in London: “I can’t tonight, for I am going to be seduced by a rich old Guy.”

The OED doesn’t go as far as Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins in linking this usage to Guy Fawkes, but it says the “earliest examples may be influenced” by the grotesque sense of the word “guy.”

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