A Guy

A Guy

“Who was that guy?” The original guy (in the sense of ‘anonymous male’) is generally considered to have been Guy Fawkes, best remembered for his role in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The Gunpowder Plot (also known in less politically correct times as the Jesuit Treason) was a conspiracy aimed at removing the Protestant king James (the First of England, the Sixth of Scotland) and replacing him with his Catholic daughter, the princess Elizabeth. The first part of the operation was to have been effected by blowing up the House of Lords when Parliament opened on November 5. Thanks to an anonymous tip, the plot was foiled at the last minute, Guy Fawkes was caught tending the explosives that the conspirators had put in place under the House of Lords, and he and his coconspirators were summarily tried and sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered, a punishment reserved at the time for men convicted of high treason. (Fawkes apparently managed to avoid the gruesome drawing and quartering parts, which were supposed to follow the convict’s partial hanging, by suicidally jumping from the scaffold.) The following January, Parliament passed the Thanksgiving Act (officially, the “Observance of 5th November Act 1605”), subsequently celebrated (at least by British Protestants) with antipapist sermonizing, bonfires, effigy burning, and interfaith rioting.  The Observance of 5th November Act 1605 was effectively repealed by the passage of the Anniversary Days Observance Act in 1859, though the night of November 5, by then long known as Guy Fawkes Night, is still celebrated to this day, resembling more a British version of Halloween than Thanksgiving. The corresponding November 5 “Pope’s Day” festivities in Colonial America pretty much fizzled out after General Washington admonished the citizenry to look kindly, ignoring issues of religion, on their French-speaking allies in Québec who in 1774 had just been granted the right to practice their faith.

So, how do we get from the eponymous Guy to the generic guy? The story goes like this: A standard feature of Guy Fawkes Night celebrations was the effigy—sometimes of Guy Fawkes though sometimes of the pope or other noteworthy figure held in disrepute—called a guy, presumably getting its initial lower case when the effigies became generic.

exploding Judas

Exploding Judases

To get from guy as ‘bad/grotesque male effigy’ to ‘bad/grotesque male person’ is easy enough (though it apparently took until the early 1800s to do so in print).  From there, it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to guy as ‘generic male’ (“every guy needs a girl,” Guys and Dolls), ‘specific male whose name we don’t know or aren’t using at the moment’ (“that guy in the photo is my uncle Joe,” the Guy upstairs—presumably the low-church version of the high-church Man upstairs), and, in the plural, ‘unnamed people of unspecified gender’ (“Hey, guys, let’s party,” which could be addressed to a group of males, females, or a mix of males and females), extensions of meaning all born in the U.S.A. beginning in the mid to late 1800s and extending into the mid 1900s.

Of course, Guy isn’t the only person’s name that has been pressed into service as a stand-in for ‘generic male’ (or ‘generic male with a vaguely negative social pong,’ which along with residual associations with Mr. Fawkes himself made the name a relative rarity until the early 20th century as one you’d actually give your kid): A john, for example, is a prostitute’s client, a mark is the target of a scam, while Tom, Dick, and Harry (who at least retain the dignity of their initial caps) are at best ordinary folk (often qualified by any as if to underline their commonness). Indeed, even the upper case initial caps have a tendency to be replaced by their more modest lower case counterparts when Tom, Dick, and Harry go to Spain (as fulano, mengano, y zutano, sometimes joined by their tag-along friend perengano) or Italy (as tizio, caio, e sempronio, sometimes with mevio, filano e calpurnio bringing up the rear).

fulano et al

Tom, Dick, and Harry (Spanish)

Fulano (to which the Italian filano bears a suspicious resemblance) is a borrowing from Arabic fulān, which Gómez de Silva glosses (in his Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua española) as ‘a person or thing whose name is not expressed,’ and can be used stand-alone (unlike mengano, zutano, or perengano, which always appear in a group) with the sense of ‘so-and-so, an unspecified person or thing’ (though the grammatically feminine form, fulana, has the sense of ‘slut, painted lady’); fulano de tal and fulana de tal are essentially ‘what’s-his-name’ and ‘what’s-her-name’ or ‘John and Jane Doe,’ respectively. Mengano is possibly also from Arabic man kan ‘whoever,’ while zutano is probably a made-up name based on fulano and mengano. (Presumabaly likewise the later perengano.)

 The canonical Italian Tom, Dick, and Harrytizio, caio, e sempronio—are the direct descendents of three stock  stalwarts of  the corpus of medieval commentary on Roman civil law, much like the ubiquitous A, B, and C of mathematics primers of the early 1900s (as in Stephen Leacock’s “A lays a wager that he can walk faster than B or C. A can walk half as fast again as B, and C is only an indifferent walker. Find how far, and so forth.” http://www.online-literature.com/stephen-leacock/literary-lapses/40/). The three, whose creation is generally attributed to the twelfth-century Bolognese legal scholar Irnerius, were Titius, Caius, and Sempronius.

titius et al

Tom, Dick, and Harry in a Roman Law Book

For example, a commentator on contract law might give as an example of in gratiam mandantis et manditarii Sempronius authorizing Titius to lend money to Caius at some rate of interest with the expectation that he (Sempronius) would be the ultimate recipient of that interest. Titius and Sempronius were both common Roman clan (gens) names, while Caius was popular both as a first name (praenōmen) and as a family/subclan name (cognōmen). Caius was probably originally Etruscan and, after the Romans introduced the distinction between the letters C and G, the name was sometimes spelled Gaius, though much as we might like to, we can’t honestly derive guy from it.