Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the derivation of the word “guy” as in “Guys and Dolls.” I am told it is a contraction of a Yiddish word meaning “fellow” or “man.” It apparently reflects the growth of the language from Hebrew via Russia and German. — Brian Steven.
That’s a good question, but I think we’re going to have to change your “apparently” to “supposedly.” You don’t say where you heard or read that theory about “guy” being a contraction of a Yiddish word, but it’s not true. The only explanation I can think of for that misunderstanding is that someone noticed the resemblance of “guy” to “goy,” which is a designation used among Jews for a person who is not Jewish, i.e., a gentile. “Goy” in this usage comes from the Hebrew word “goy” (plural “goyim”) meaning “people, nation.” Interestingly, “gentile” also comes from a word meaning “people” or “nation,” in this case the Latin “gens.”
Meanwhile, back at “guy,” the real story is a fascinating one. The first thing to note is that “guy” is not only an informal English term for “man” or “fellow.” “Guy” is also a proper name for men, pronounced “gy” (with a hard “g”) in English, but “gee” (also with a hard “g”) in French. I mention French because the name “Guy” is from Norman French and is related to the same Germanic root that gave us “guide.” And that, in turn, is relevant because the same “guide” root gave us the English term “guy wire” (or line, or rope), the long cables that keep tall antennas and the like from falling over.
The fact that “Guy” is a proper name is important because “guy” in the sense of “fellow” is an eponym, a word formed from the proper name of a person, in this case a person named “Guy.” This original “guy” was Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 was hanged for his involvement in what came to be known as the Gunpowder Plot. Fawkes and his co-conspirators had planned to blow up England’s Houses of Parliament while King James I and many of the aristocracy were inside. Fawkes was apprehended at the last moment, in the act of lighting the fuses on barrels of powder that had been smuggled into a cellar beneath Parliament.
The foiling of the Gunpowder Plot made November 5, “Guy Fawkes Day,” a national holiday in England. The crude effigies of Fawkes burned on bonfires amid raucous celebration were known as “guys,” and “guy” eventually came to mean “a figure or person of bizarre appearance.” Since the story of Guy Fawkes was not well known in the US, however, we adopted “guy” in the 19th century as just a synonym for “man” or “fellow.” In the past few years, “guy” has become largely gender-neutral, and waiters in particular seem fond of addressing a table of men and women as “you guys.”
Incidentally, in the popular 2006 film “V for Vendetta,” the character “V” wears a mask based on a caricature of Guy Fawkes, and the film begins, as I recall, by invoking a popular poem written in the wake of Fawkes’ plot: “Remember, remember the fifth of November, The gunpowder, treason and plot, I know of no reason, Why the gunpowder treason, Should ever be forgot.”