Hey, you guys!
Guy Fawkes didn’t succeed in his terrorist plot four centuries ago. And it remains to be seen whether the Guy Fawkes masks recently worn by Occupy Wall Street protesters will terrorize the 1 percent. But Guy has succeeded beyond a doubt in one thing: changing the English language.
We talk about him all the time. He’s the guy of you guys.
Changing the language wasn’t part of his plot. But if it weren’t for his attempt to blow up the British Houses of Parliament in 1605, we wouldn’t have the guys of today.
The interaction of history and language sometimes produces strange results, and this is one of the strangest. Here’s how it happened:
Four hundred years ago, the official religion of England depended on the religion of the monarch. Queen Elizabeth had died in 1603, to be succeeded by King James. Both ruled by virtue of being Protestant, head of the Church of England and independent of the Pope. But there were many Roman Catholics in England who wanted to return England to Catholicism.
One of them was Guy Fawkes.
He was an Englishman, born in York in 1570. As a young man he crossed the English Channel to fight on the side of Catholic armies in Flanders and France. In 1604 he slipped back into England and began working with others to put barrels of gunpowder in a cellar underneath the houses of Parliament. One of his co-conspirators, Thomas Percy, had conveniently rented a house next door.
They began filling the cellars with gunpowder in March 1605, and by November were ready to blow up the place at a time when Parliament would be in session. But during the night of November 4, a search party inspected the cellars and found Fawkes with the gunpowder. They arrested him before he could cause any damage.
Along with four co-conspirators, he was hanged, drawn, and quartered in January. So much for Guy Fawkes.
But his name lived on. Hearing of the plot foiled, on November 5 Londoners started bonfires to celebrate. And Parliament, happy to have escaped, declared November 5 an annual day of thanksgiving. As the years went on, it became the custom to make effigies of Guy Fawkes and others (particularly the Pope) and burn them in November 5 bonfires. The effigies were called guys.
Colonial America often celebrated Guy Fawkes Day as vigorously as England. But with independence came opposition to the anti-Catholic character of the celebration as well as indifference to the historical Guy Fawkes. By the mid-19th century, in American English, guy came to have a more neutral meaning, first a strange-looking straw effigy, then a strange-looking man, then just any man, a guy. And so we talk about guys today, a slangy way of referring to men and boys.
That’s the explanation for guy. But how do we get you guys, our most common way of addressing to more than one person?
The answer is grammatical. Guy is a noun. But in you guys, it takes on the guise of a pronoun.
And why is that? Blame it on an epidemic of politeness among speakers of the English language.
In the 18th century, speakers of English became so polite that they used the polite form you to address not just several people but even just one. Instead of thou art we said you are, even to one person.
But we still like to distinguish between singular and plural in our pronouns, so speakers of English invented a variety of ways to make a plural form of you. Some added –s in various shapes to make youse, you’ns, or yinz. Others, especially in the American South, added all to make you all and y’all.
And then, around the middle of the past century, people began adding guys to make you guys. Until then, guy referred just to men and boys, but the combination you guys acted as a plural second-person pronoun and could be applied to humans of any gender.
No, guys didn’t actually become a pronoun. It remains a noun. It’s just that the combination of you and guys acts like a plural pronoun. Funny thing, language!
Once that was established, you guys could be shortened to guys but still function as a second-person pronoun. “You guys, get to work” could be expressed as “Guys, get to work” without being restricted to males.
And so we have you guys today as the most widely used plural of you, at least in the United States. If you’re someone, especially someone female, who doesn’t like being addressed as “you guys” when you’re dining with a friend in a restaurant, either because it’s slangy or because guys ought to be men—you can blame it on Guy Fawkes. But don’t blame him too much, because if we’d kept thou we’d never have you guys.