Guys and Dolls

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November / Gunpowder, treason and plot…

Yes, it’s time for that most peculiar of British rituals: Guy Fawkes’ Night. Should you find yourself having to explain this celebration to someone from outside the UK – while they look at you as if you’re bonkers – here’s a handy primer.

The formula is as follows: kids cart round a lifesize doll while collecting money (‘Pennies for the Guy’). Then they burn said doll on a bonfire. While setting off fireworks. Everyone cheers, because it’s fun. But how did it start? And who is this guy Guy anyway?

Guy_Fawkes

This Guy. This Guy right here.

Guy Fawkes was one of a group of Catholic conspirators who plotted to blow up the House of Lords using barrels of gunpowder – while King James (I and VI of England and Scotland, respectively) was inside. Now James I/VI was not a man to mess about when it came to dealing with his spiritual enemies (he’d even written a book, Daemonologie, endorsing the fight against demons and witchcraft – of witches he was not a fan). So the knives were out for Fawkes when he was captured. But Guy Fawkes wasn’t sentenced to death by burning. His punishment was to be hanged, drawn and quartered, and his constituent parts distributed across the constituencies – a punishment reserved for treasonous types like William Wallace before him.

To celebrate the foiling of this ‘Gunpowder Plot’, the King decided official festivities were in order. Gunpowder Treason Day, as it was originally known, was even enshrined in statute. This celebration (which was as close as Puritans got to a ‘knees up’ – in some cases they set fire to effigies of the Pope) fell in and out of favour as successive monarchs took the throne, but these days survives as an excuse to set off fireworks – without religious overtones.

The celebration even had a limited lifespan as an export: New England settlers celebrated ‘Pope Day’, although the American Revolution pretty much swept it away (the Fourth of July now has the cultural monopoly on fireworks displays).

Bonfire

Tough Guys don’t dance (because they’re on fire).

[Photo copyright London Evening Standard]

But Guy Fawkes also leaves an unexpected legacy to the English language via his name. The etymology of ‘guy’, as in ‘person’, has its earliest usage recorded in the 19th century. While we can marvel at this accident of linguistic history (‘Bloke Fawkes’ or ‘Dude Fawkes’ just don’t have the same ring), this fact is what makes a ‘guy’ distinct from a mere doll.