Read about and listen to this episode at theallusionist.org/guy.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, stand back from language as it catches alight, soars into the sky and bursts into multicoloured sparkles.
Coming up in today’s show: it’s our annual dose of eponyms, with eponym superfan Roman Mars. Because as he said, “An eponym, almost by definition, has some kind of story. That’s what I love about eponyms.” And today’s story really is quite a story.
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Content note: this episode contains a description of 17th century torture. Braced and ready? On with the show.
HZ: This is our third annual eponymisode. Are you still glad you brought up eponyms?
ROMAN MARS: I am!
HZ: That's nice. Not getting sick of them yet?
ROMAN MARS: No, not at all. Never. I'll never be sick of them.
HZ: Oh that's good, because you and I have actually been occasionally performing a whole live show about eponyms.
ROMAN MARS: I know! And it's delightful.
HZ: It is delightful. You've sold me on them. It's taken all this time. We've covered ballpoint pens in the first year. And medical eponyms in the second year. And this year I chose one that surprised me, because I didn't realize it was an eponym; I thought it was a general word that became someone's name but it was actually the other way round.
ROMAN MARS: Oh, that's my favorite kind. A surprise eponym. I love it.
HZ: I didn't realise you had different grades of eponyms.
ROMAN MARS: I like the ones where you use it all the time but don't realize that it's an eponym. That is a delight. Those are fantastic.
HZ: Well, this one I think is really going to hit you in that delighted place, because the word is 'guy', and the person it came from is Guy Fawkes. Do you know anything about Guy Fawkes, as an American?
ROMAN MARS: I do. Yes. The Gunpowder Plot. I know at least the edges of that story as somewhat reinforced by (I'm sure completely historically accurate) V for Vendetta. But yeah, I know Guy Fawkes and I know what a Guy Fawkes mask is. I had no idea that Guy Fawkes predated the use of the word 'guy' as a general person.
HZ: No, I didn't either. When you grow up in Britain, you don't know a lot more than you do as an American who had V for Vendetta. What you know is that on 5th November there are fireworks displays everywhere, and in some places they'll still have a bonfire and they'll burn a guy on it which is an effigy of a human named after Guy Fawkes who, in the early hours of 5th November 1605, was arrested for the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
ROMAN MARS: Wow.
HZ: So this general word for person that we have now came from an effigy which came from a specific person.
ROMAN MARS: That’s amazing. That’s amazing.
HZ: Get ready for a concentrated dose of 16th and early 17th century English history.
VICTORIA BUCKLEY: Well it was it was Henry VIII, basically, who wanted to get together with Anne Boleyn. And at that point England was entirely Catholic. And Henry VIII wrote to the Pope and said, "I want to get divorced; I want to get together with Anne Boleyn," and the Pope said, "Absolutely no way; that's not happening." And Henry VIII went, "Well, I'll just start my own church then."
HZ: That’s historian Dr Victoria Buckley. And the church King Henry VIII started was the Church Of England, which retained some of his favourite bits of Catholicism but allowed him to get out of his first of six marriages. This was known as the Reformation, and in 1534, England officially separated from Rome - bye, Pope! Hello, centuries of religious and political turmoil!
VICTORIA BUCKLEY: And then what happened was that Englandbecame a country that was kind of divided between those people who subscribe to the new Protestant faith, and Catholics who adhere to the old way of doing things.
HZ: Monasteries and convents, of which there were 900 around England, were dissolved, their property and money seized, their religious artefacts destroyed. Catholic practices like confession and praying to the Virgin Mary were banned. The pendulum oscillated during the reigns of Henry VIII’s children, veering more Protestant under Edward VI, back to Catholic under Mary, then away again under Elizabeth I, who couldn’t endorse Catholicism because, by its tenets, she was Henry’s illegitimate child, being the product of his controversial second marriage, and therefore could not be a legitimate occupant of the throne.
VICTORIA BUCKLEY: And under Elizabeth I - she was essentially a Protestant queen, but she had maintained a lot of Catholic ideas.
HZ: She wasn’t sympathetic to Catholics, though. Very soon after she took to the throne, a law was passed making it compulsory to attend Church of England services. Under threat of fines, imprisonment or execution, Catholics had to worship in secret. After a 44-year reign, Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, and King James VI of Scotland travelled south to become King James I of England.
VICTORIA BUCKLEY: And there was a lot of disgruntlement because he was a very very very staunch Protestant.
HZ: The Gunpowder Plotters certainly weren’t pleased. They wanted a Catholic monarch, or at least a monarch who was tolerant of Catholicism. Add that to the clutch of reasons that have been offered for their plot.
VICTORIA BUCKLEY: Part of it, I think, was the idea of notoriety. Part of it was the idea of making a big splash. They were quite interested in just political change for its own sake; and they also were a bit disgruntled. But above and beyond that, they wanted to restore the Catholic religion. They wanted to get rid of James I. And if their plot had been successful, they would have blown up the Houses of Parliament which means they would have blown up the King, they would have wiped out the judiciary, the clergy. It would have effectively decapitated the head of the ruling body in England.
HZ: The Gunpowder Plot started being plotted around the end of 1603, start of 1604, by a man in his early 30s named Robert Catesby. Several members of his Catholic family had been imprisoned or fined for their faith. First, he recruited his cousin, Thomas Wintour, and then John Wright and his brother-in-law Thomas Percy.
VICTORIA BUCKLEY: And then they realized they're going to need quite a lot of other people in the group. So they dispatch someone overseas to the Netherlands, where England was at war with Spain. And that's where they met Guy Fawkes.
HZ: Guy Fawkes was English, but as a Catholic he had been fighting on the side of the Spanish for the previous ten years.
VICTORIA BUCKLEY: He was a really, really well-respected captain, and he was very devout. But he was known as an ordinance man, so his expertise was in laying wires, the gunpowder and stuff like that.
HZ: In the end, there were thirteen plotters altogether. Several of them had been involved, along with Catesby, in the thwarted 1601 Essex Rebellion against Queen Elizabeth.
Back in London, in March 1605, they rented a vault beneath the Houses of Parliament, and hid 36 barrels of gunpowder in it. They planned to detonate on the day of the State Opening Of Parliament, which was set for 5th November 1605. But then…
VICTORIA BUCKLEY: What was known as the Monteagle letter was sent in October 1605. Lord Monteagle was a famous Catholic, and someone tipped him off. And it basically said, "Don't go to Parliament on 5th November because you'll be blown to smithereens."
HZ: Nobody’s sure who wrote that letter to Lord Monteagle. But King James I sent people to search for signs of trouble. On the night of 4th November 1605, the eve of the planned plot, Guy Fawkes went to the vault to check on the gunpowder, to make sure everything was ready to detonate the next day. Unfortunately for him, the keeper of the precinct of Westminster was poking around beneath Parliament.
VICTORIA BUCKLEY: And he went into the vault; and there of course he found Guy Fawkes, clutching a lantern and a box of matches or a tinder box.
HZ: In the early hours of 5th November, Guy Fawkes was arrested, and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
VICTORIA BUCKLEY: And then, on the 7th of November, Guy Fawkes was tortured in the Tower. He was manacled, which involved his hands being put into iron manacles and then suspended from the stone wall, and underneath his feet was like a pile of firewood. And then very gradually they kicked bits of the firewood away so he was effectively suspended by his wrists. So his wrists were both broken. And then they racked him on the rack. So all his joints were effectively completely dislocated, broken. Because he had been so badly tortured, he started naming loads of names and spilling the beans.
HZ: While Guy Fawkes was being tortured in the Tower of London, what about the other plotters? Well, they were already nowhere near. When word got around about the Monteagle Letter, they had fled London, and were hiding 130 miles away.
VICTORIA BUCKLEY: They all holed themselves up in this house called Holbeche House in Staffordshire. And they were all lying around going, "Ooh, a narrow escape." And they were drying some gunpower by the fire, and it exploded, in a really ironical way. And they all a lot of them went, "Oh God, that's divine intervention," and they all fled from Holbeche House. But then the authorities caught up with them and there was a huge siege, and a lot of the plotters then were killed in this siege; they were shot in this siege.
HZ: The surviving plotters were taken to the Tower of London, and at the end of January 1606 they and Guy Fawkes were publicly executed.
VICTORIA BUCKLEY: And they met the most awful end. They were hung, drawn and quartered, which effectively meant being hung by the neck until you were almost dead but not actually dead. Then you were cut down then, all your organs were cut out, and set fire to before your eyes. And you were eventually kind of dispatched on a butcher's block. And that was that was the penalty for treason. That served as not only horrendous punishment obviously, but it also served to deter people who were thinking, “Well maybe I'll commit a bit of treason against the king,” or “Maybe I'll get involved in a plot.” Because executions in that period were huge spectacles, a bit like theatre: people went along to have a good look at what was happening and to watch people going through all of this awful, slow, butcherous method of being killed. And it was public theatre.
HZ: And it soon became a public celebration as well. A couple of months after the foiled plot, an act of Parliament was passed that actually made it law to to celebrate Gunpowder Treason Day every 5th November, to give thanks for the “joyful deliverance of James I” from the Catholic plotters. And even though that law was repealed in 1859, towns and villages all over England still mark 5th November each year with fireworks and a bonfire. Why a bonfire?
VICTORIA BUCKLEY: Well, bonfire was part of the Protestant tradition: people would light bonfires in the street in order to celebrate things. For example, when James I came to the throne, people lit bonfires and it became quite standard practice to celebrate in the street with fires and stuff like that.
HZ: And in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, anti-Catholic sentiment was even more virulent than it had been before, so people would chuck onto the bonfires effigies of the Pope or the devil, and then, in time, of Guy Fawkes.
VICTORIA BUCKLEY: In the 18th century, Guy Fawkes started to become synonymous with bonfire.
HZ: In the run-up to Bonfire Night, children would wheel around their Guy Fawkeses, asking for money. “Penny for the guy”. Eventually the bonfire night effigies came to be of other hate figures - the town of Lewes in East Sussex keeps up the tradition each year at its particularly enthusiastic bonfire night events with a topical choice, such as, in 2015, the then Prime Minister of Britain David Cameron with a pig’s head. Google it.
But somehow, Guy Fawkes’s name is the one that became attached to the effigies - by the early 19th century, they were known as 'guys'. And then, by the 1830s, the word ‘guy’ meant a scruffily dressed person, either in reference to the state of the effigies, or of the people who were begging with them. By 1847, ‘guy’ was an informal term for a male person - in American English. So somehow the word crossed the Atlantic, and took on a new meaning, forgetting the connection to a political plot more than two centuries before.
ROMAN MARS: That's interesting.
HZ: You innovated.
ROMAN MARS: Yeah.
HZ: You took that meaning out and you gave that word to everyone. I'm treating you as a representative of your nation.
ROMAN MARS: Thank you. That is remarkable.
HZ: But is it fair that, out of the thirteen Gunpowder Plotters, Guy Fawkes is the one who is remembered in this way?
VICTORIA BUCKLEY: No, not at all. Because the poor man, really, he wasn't the ringleader. He was only brought in to do the ordinance stuff; he was just a very small cog. But because he was the only one that was initially captured, he's the one that's now representative of the whole thing. So he's now the big bad bogeyman. And that's been consistent since 1605. But it's only because all the others fled the scene and left him to carry the can, effectively. The real person that we all really ought to be thinking of as being the person that's ultimately representative of the plot is Robert Catesby. He was the mastermind, he was the one who dreamt it all up, he was the one that raised all the money, found all the ammo and organized everything and found the vaults and sent people overseas to agitate in the Netherlands. He really was the ringleader, whereas Guy Fawkes was just a bit of a beard that happened to be caught with his matches in his pocket.
HZ: This eponym though: I'm wondering whether it partly caught on because it's such a small word - three letters, and it's basically a consonant and a breath; and therefore it's easy to assimilate and it's easy to use often. So I'm wondering whether some aesthetic of the word made it common - because it could have been so different. Guy Fawkes didn't go by the name 'Guy Fawkes'; it was his birth name, but the name he went by was John Johnson, and johns isn't such a general term for people; it means something specific.
ROMAN MARS: Yeah, it does! Yeah, it is more specific... That's interesting.
HZ: It’s another ‘gentleman’ term.
ROMAN MARS: It's a family show!
HZ: And then he styled himself ‘Guido’ because even that was a more Spanish version of guy he'd been fighting on behalf of the Spanish for the best part of a decade.
ROMAN MARS: Yeah. So we could say a bunch of guidos, essentially.
HZ: But that term has a meaning as well.
ROMAN MARS: It does, yeah; I would say that it would probably be a slightly derogatory epithet for a group of Italian-Americans or something like that, you call them guidos. Not you, someone.
HZ: I wouldn't, but I’ve only seen it in the context of people commentating upon Jersey Shore, which I have not seen.
ROMAN MARS: Yeah, I think that's my sense of it. But I've never seen it or probably heard it used beyond what was on television.
HZ: And then we could have had robert catesbys. Roberts.
ROMAN MARS: Yeah. Catesbys would never... I think you're right in the sense that the shortness, as a phoneme, ‘guy’ is really satisfying. Catesbys and roberts wouldn't work; guidos wouldn't work exactly. But I still find it kind of amazing that you would have this the idea of this effigy becoming a general term. It's weird that an enemy of the state that is burned in effigy would take on such an anodyne moniker - that the evil of that wouldn't transfer. It's like calling people like a group of people a bunch of Hitlers. “Hey Hitlers! How's it going?”
HZ: “Hey Osamas!”
ROMAN MARS: Exactly. You just can't picture it with any other terrorist. And having any of the morality sort of leached away from it is kind of stunning. You'd think that would be the thing that would be retained in the meaning is the plot.
HZ: Or the divisive history wrapped up in it. Because on the one hand, you have people who call Guy Fawkes a terrorist, a Catholic terrorist. While on the other, you have him being the unfortunate figurehead of an attempt to agitate politically on behalf of the oppressed Catholics.
ROMAN MARS: If the meaning wasn't you know transferred for this long and lost and at a certain point, you just have to let it go, because everything has horrible origins.
HZ: Yeah. A lot of words in our language have, in a metaphorical sense, a man lurking beneath them with a load of gunpowder and some matches.
ROMAN MARS: Exactly!
HZ: There’s another inflammatory aspect to the word ‘guy’ that we have not covered - yet. I know a lot of people have strong feelings about ‘guy’ or ‘guys’ or ‘you guys’ being applied to people other than men. If you are such a person with strong feelings, and you would be willing to air them on this show, would you record yourself opining for a few seconds? Voice memo on your phone is fine. Likewise if you favour a different term as a general way to refer to a person or people. Email recordings to email@example.com, and thanks very much to you if you already sent me one.
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The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia, a collective of the best podcasts on the interwaves, founded by PRX and some fellow called Roman Mars. Back from a break is his show What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law, wherein the constitutional law professor Elizabeth Joh plucks order from chaos by using the deeds of the 45th president to help us learn the complexities of the US Constitution in quick and entertaining instalments. And on Roman’s other podcast, 99% Invisible, you Allusionist listeners should try the recent episode called Person In Lotus Position, which follows the process of how an emoji gets accepted by the Unicode Consortium, which we heard something about in the emoji episode of this show, no.13 I think. Hear both of Roman’s shows, and all of the others that he gathered into Radiotopia, at radiotopia.fm.
Roman and the good people of PRX could only have made Radiotopia with the support of the Knight Foundation and you listeners. Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
ubiety, noun; poetic/literary: the condition of being in a definite place.
Try using it in an email today.
If you’ve been wondering throughout this whole show whether the word 'bonfire' has anything to do with 'bone fire', well done! That is an appropriate thing to wonder; about 500 years ago, the term was bone fire. But it’s not alluding to the burning bones of Catholics - animal bones were burned for fuel and hygienic disposal. Bonus bit of etymology for you there. Bonus = nothing to do with bones.
This episode was produced by Sarah Geis and me, Helen Zaltzman. The music is by Martin Austwick. Visit Dr Victoria Buckley’s website to read up on the fascinating turbulent history of the time either side of the Gunpowder Plot: shakespearesengland.co.uk. Thanks to Greg Jenner, and happy birthday to Roman Mars. Find facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow, and to read more about each episode and see the full dictionary entries for every one of the randomly selected words of the day, visit the show’s permanent residence at theallusionist.org.