Word Stories: Hey, You Guys!

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen Podcast on the origin of the word ‘guy’.

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Hello and welcome to Learning English with Stephen. My name is Stephen Greene and today we are talking about the quite amazing history of the word ‘guy’.

Before we do, I’d like to remind you of my site EnglishwithStephen.com. On that site, you can find a transcript for today’s episode, and it is quite a complicated story so the transcript might be very helpful for some people. You will also find links and pictures to some of the things I talk about in this episode.

All of the episodes in this podcast are under 10 minutes long, and I have a lot of information today, so let’s get started!

The word ‘guy’ is quite a controversial one in some circles nowadays. When I was a kid it was more popular in the USA than the UK, and it was generally used to talk about men. For example, ‘I met these guys in the park and we played football,’ probably meant you were talking about men or young men.

In the UK, I only used it to imitate the great film of The Goonies. Hey you guys!

It is still much more common in the USA than the UK, but it has changed its meaning now so that some people use it in a plural non-gender specific way. This means it can be used to talk about both men and women so that if you meet some guys in the park it is no longer clear if you are talking about playing with men, women, or both.

Talking about gender is almost guaranteed to create an argument. Talking about correct language is also a hotbed of opinion. Mixing the two is just asking for disagreement.

And as if that wasn’t enough, after this short musical interlude we are going to start talking about religion!

While the use of ‘guy’ is more common in the USA, it started life in the UK. In fact, the original Guy is still celebrated, or at least remembered, in the UK every year on the 5th of November.

It is the year 1605. Europe is in the middle of huge religious arguments. There are the traditional Catholics and the relatively new Protestants. They all claim to believe in the same god, but they want to worship and organise their societies in radically different ways.

England is also having the same disagreements. 2 years earlier, in1603, King Kames III of Scotland became King James I of England. He was deeply protestant, and this angered many Catholics.

One group of Catholics decided to do something about this. They got the help of a man called Guy Fawkes who was an expert in munitions, and so he placed barrels of gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament. Gunpowder is the black powder that was used to create explosions and in the first guns. They chose the date of 5th November because this was the day the king was going to open parliament. At such an important event, not only would the king be present, but also all the bishops, the judges and most of the aristocracy. In short, the plan was to destroy the top of English society.

Unfortunately for the bomb makers, the authorities were informed and, on the morning of the plot, when Guy Fawkes was checking his explosives, he was discovered by a representative of the king. He was arrested and tortured before he gave up the names of his fellow conspirators. Every year, from that date, we remember this day with a celebration that includes big bonfires and fireworks. Even now, over 400 years later, this is an important date in England.

Even today, we throw effigies onto the fires. An effigy is a kind of model that is supposed to look like someone. Very soon after the original Gunpowder Plot, as it is known, people used to make a Guy Fawkes, beg for money with this Guy, and then throw the Guy on the bonfire. The people who were asking for money were usually very poor, often boys or young men, so these poor, untidy people became known as guys.

Fast forward a couple of hundred years, and this word ‘guy’ has crossed the Atlantic and is now commonly used to talk about any young man. There is no political connotation, perhaps because it was no longer important to Americans. But the word was popular and continued to be used to talk about men for a long time. In recent years, the word has taken on a new role so that it can be used to talk about either men or women.

Guy Fawkes lives on in other ways as well. To some people, he is a terrorist planting bombs under the leaders of the state to get political and social change. To other people, he is seen as a freedom fighter. In Alan Moore’s book, and the subsequent film, ‘V for Vendetta’ the hero of the film wears a Guy Fawkes mask and succeeds in blowing up the Houses of Parliament. He is portrayed as resisting a tyrannical government.

The mask that is used in ‘V for Vendetta’ is now a symbol of resistance in itself and can often be seen at demonstrations and protests around the world.

It seems strange to me that a man with the controversial political legacy of Guy Fawkes should be used as a way of talking about people. I mean, how would we feel if we started talking about how we met a bunch of Hitlers in the pub, or a few Bin Ladens in the park? But that is the story of Guy Fawkes, how he fought the British establishment and lost, and how his name and legacy still lives on in some most unusual ways.

Two great links!

A white Guy Fawkes mask on a black background. Text: Hey you guys! The origin of the word 'guy' by English with Stephen
Leave it to the guys!

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