Etymology Nerd: Don’t call me Guy, buddy!

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Once upon a time, the Pope sent a string of rosaries to the Queen of England. 400 years later, we have a word we can use to refer to just about anyone.

If you’ve ever gone to a Renaissance Faire, I’m sure you have a pretty clear picture of what England looked like back in 1605: lots of swords and horses and tights and cleavage and mead and face-painting kiosks and cleavage and guys with bad facial hair chowing down on turkey legs.

Yes, Renaissance England was a good time.

Stick him with the pointy end.

Especially if you didn’t get laid in high school.

In 1605, the man in charge of this raucous party was King James the First of England (who also happened to be King James the Sixth of Scotland, because he was just that kingly). Everything had gone fine with King James’ rule for the first few years.

Then the pope sent his wife a rosary, and all hell broke loose.

In order to understand why that is, you need to know that Renaissance England wasn’t all turkey cleavage and dragon puppets. There was also an enormous power struggle going on. On the one side, you have the British Monarchy, and on the other side you had the Catholics.

It seems kind of funny now because we think of popes or British monarchs as just old white people with lots of money and funny hats who aren’t really all that relevant when it comes to the gears that keep the world spinning.

But in Renaissance Europe, kings and queens actually ruled their countries. If you were in their country and they didn’t like you, it was “off with your head!” They claimed their privilege to do this was granted by “divine right”. So if the king told you to do something and you asked, “Why?” all he would have to say was, “because God.”

But who gave them that divine right? The only level 100 priest in all the realm: the pope.

Clearly, this one is a Shadow Priest.

Meanwhile, some big religious thinkers had been thinking big religious thoughts, mostly about how much the Catholic church, in their learned opinion, sucked. They wanted a new, pope-free Church. This movement was called “Protestantism”, probably because “The Pope Can Go Fuck Himself-ism” didn’t play well to the focus groups.

The English monarchy liked Protestantism, because it meant they could issue themselves divine right and stop paying dues to Rome. So they set up the Church of England. This was kind of like the religious equivalent of Napster, only instead using it to download pirated copies of Metallica’s Black album, they were downloading God’s grace for free.

So when the Pope sent a rosary–a symbol of the Roman Church–to James’ wife Queen Anne he was sending James a subtle message:

“Your feeble skills are no match for the power of the One True Church”

King James responded by kicking all the Catholic priests off his bloody island and fining Catholics for being Catholic.

So how did that go?

Well, the Catholics took it pretty well, if by “took it pretty well”, you mean “hatched a scheme to assassinate James, Queen Anne, most of their kids, and all the members of Parliament by exploding a bunch of gunpowder under Westminster and then abduct James’ heir Princess Elizabeth to raise her as their own little Catholic-friendly Queen.”

Cuz, turn the other cheek and all that jazz

The conspirators who put this Gunpowder Plot together came pretty darn close–they managed to get the powder in place. Fortunately for James and the rest, some conspirators got caught sending letters back and forth telling Catholics to stay the heck away from the Houses of Parliament on November 5. Patrols were sent to search Parliament top to bottom.

Now as everyone knows, any criminal conspiracy worth its salt has to have a demolitions expert–someone who knows how to make things blow up real good. The “Ronin” guys had Sean Bean. The “Ocean’s 11” guys had Don Cheadle. And the Gunpowder Plotters had a career soldier named Guy Fawkes.

You know the name “Guy Fawkes”, of course, because either A: you’re British, or B: you’re a history buff, or C: you saw that one movie with Natalie Portman and the guy with the mask.

This Guy.

Yes, thanks to Alan Moore’s comic book “V: for Vendetta” and its theatrical adaptation, Guy Fawkes has come to be associated with charmingly violent rogues who heroically stand up for freedom from oppressive regimes by using anarchy! So Guy Fawkes must have been some kind of roguish anti-hero, like Wolverine or Han Solo, right? I mean, why else would the hacktivist collective known as Anonymous choose to wear his mask while mobbing Scientology meet-and-greets and attending Occupy protests?

Except that Fawkes was about as big a fan of truth, liberty, and free-thinking anarchy as the Taliban.

Like the other Plotters, he wanted the Catholic Church back in charge of the British monarchy again– in other words, he just wanted to replace one giant religious regime with an even gianter religious regime.

Fortunately for James, Fawkes was caught loitering around the sub-levels of the Houses of Parliament on November 4th, the day before the intended demolition, with 36 barrels of gunpowder and a bunch of fuses in his pockets.

That would have been enough gunpowder to explode the intended target of Westminster Hall, along with all of the Palace of Westminster, and Westminster Abbey, and the surrounding area, resulting in a massive initial loss of life.

 

. . . and he would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for those lousy kids!

If Fawkes had not been caught, then on November 5th, 1605 England would have suffered an event that many have compared to 9/11, and civil war would’ve been inevitable.

Instead, tragedy was averted and Parliament enacted the “Thanksgiving Act” which established November 5th as a national day of celebration and collective uttering of “whew, that was a close one!”

November 5th has been celebrated for the past 400 years throughout Britain, appropriately, by blowing stuff up and lighting shit on fire. Fireworks and bonfires are always popular, and a feature of any November 5th celebration is also setting an effigy of Guy Fawkes on fire. What used to be called Thanksgiving Day is now as likely to be called Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night.

Burning Guys was good, clean fun. Every November 5th, young scamps would gather the materials they needed to create Guy Fawkes effigies, and would spend the day carefully assembling their “guys” out of wood, leaves, and old discarded clothing. Then they’d parade their guys through the street.

While skipping!

Guy Fawkes Night was even celebrated in America up until Americans stopped caring about the King of England not getting blown to smithereens, which was circa July 4, 1776. So they stopped burning effigies of Guy Fawkes, and started burning effigies of King George III. But, oddly enough, they still referred to the shabbily-dressed burning men as “guys”.

In fact, by the 1830’s, a common insult for anyone dressed in crappy clothes was “guy”. As in: “You smell like piss and I don’t have any change, so why don’t you crawl back to the gutter you call a home and die, guy!”

A funny thing about insults is that they can turn into terms of endearment we can use in casual company. “Dude” used to mean some city-slicker greenhorn who had no business riding a horse. “Queen” and “queer” used to be insults for gays, but have been embraced by the gay community. And perhaps the most infamous example of this effect is the N-word.

No, not “Nibbler”.

So by the 1920’s, men simply called other men “guy”. It even crossed the gender barrier as early as the 40’s, and it pretty much meant what it means today: a pronoun you can use for just about anyone. Which came from an insult. Which came from an effigy. Which came from a terrorist. Which came from the Protestant Reformation. Which means that 400 years from now. . .

 . . . we’ll all be calling each other “Osama”.

Epilogue:

It should be noted that, ironically, Fawkes himself never got to celebrate the first Guy Fawkes Night. Three months after he was caught, he was due to be subjected to the gruesome public execution of being hanged, drawn, and quartered (think: the end of “Braveheart”). But he managed to leap to his death from the gallows before they could mutilate his genitals and pull his guts out like so much Fruit-by-the-Foot.

“FREEEEDOOOOOM!!!”

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