Your stand-up guide to ‘guys’

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

You know those wires leading from some utility poles, anchoring them in place? What do you call those?

Are they “guide wires,” as some news reports have it? They do “guide” the utility poles to stand up straight.

Or do you call them “guy wires,” as other reports do? If so, it’s not because they were probably put up by “guys.”

Here’s the story. Gunpowder is involved.

The original “guy” was indeed a “guide,” but a human one, a “conductor or leader,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, tracing that usage to 1375 and calling it “obsolete” and “rare.” It came about, not surprisingly, from words in other languages meaning “guide.”

About 250 years later, the OED says, a “guy” was a nautical term for a rope, strap, or chain used to steady something and hold it in place. Even back then, nouns became verbs, and so “to guy” meant to secure something. Things were “guys.” People weren’t.

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And that was that, until Nov. 5, 1605, when a Catholic sympathizer named Guy Fawkes plotted with others to blow up the British Parliament with its monarch, King James I, inside, a plan later called the Gunpowder Plot. The night before the planned explosion, Fawkes was discovered in the cellar under the House of Lords with barrels of gunpowder and matches.

In what originally started as anti-Catholic displays, Londoners lighted bonfires to celebrate the foiling of the plot, and in 1606, November 5 was declared a day of thanksgiving. It survives in the form of Guy Fawkes Night, sometimes called Bonfire Night.

Besides the bonfires, an effigy of Guy Fawkes is traditionally burned, usually a grotesque effigy. By extension, “a person of grotesque appearance,” especially “with reference to dress,” became known as “a guy.” If it sounds a lot like Halloween, it is: Children even dress up in grotesque costumes and beg for pennies in the days leading to Guy Fawkes Day.

That Guy Fawkes mask popularized by the movie V for Vendetta goes way back, but now more recently has come to symbolize anarchism, anti-government demonstrations, and groups like Anonymous. It seems fitting, given that that’s what Fawkes was.

Even though the bonfires came to the colonies, it was an effigy of the pope that was burned, not Guy Fawkes. But the sense of a “grotesque” man probably led to the first use of “guy” to just mean a man, the OED says, in 1847.

“Guys” and “dolls” was one of Damon Runyon’s favorite ways of referring to both men and women in the 1920s and 1930s, and it of course led to the 1950 musical of that name. It was not as ubiquitous as it is today: Using “guy” to mean someone of any gender has exploded since the 1970s, as this Google n-gram viewer shows.

Calling everyone “guys” can be offensive to people who think of a “guy” only as a man, so something like “people” or “everyone” can be a better alternative.

But what about those wires?

Most dictionaries want them to be “guy” wires, but that’s a word that might not be as familiar to audiences. So you can let your personal knowledge and audience be your guy, er, guide.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.