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In a Word

After a decades-long career exploring the roots of myriad English terms—from ‘OK’ to ‘hoagie’ to ‘selfie’ and beyond—linguist Allan Metcalf ’61 turns his attention to the humble ‘guy’


Allan Metcalf ’61.Provided

November 5 marks the 414th anniversary of an event involving a historical villain about whom you may know nothing. Yet you reference him all the time—when you talk about regular guys and tough guys and fall guys and wiseguys; when you watch The Cable Guy or “Family Guy” or Guys and Dolls; when you sing a John Lennon lyric (“I’m just a jealous guy . . .”) or quote Leo Durocher (“Nice guys finish last . . .”) or channel Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd (“We’re just two wild and crazy guys!”). Yes, it’s a guy thing—the strange and fascinating journey of a word that originated from a near-tragedy in seventeenth-century London and evolved into one of the English language’s most ubiquitous terms.

Veteran linguist Allan Metcalf ’61 was just the guy to chronicle that long, strange trip. In his newly released The Life of Guy, Metcalf takes a deep dive into the word, which has its origins in a foiled mass assassination plot involving a miscreant named Guy Fawkes. His explorations include parsing how the term “you guys” constitutes, as he writes, “the only instance in the English language where the name of a person—and an evil terrorist at that—is now used by most of us as our second-person plural pronoun.”

Recently retired after forty-six years as an English professor at tiny MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, Metcalf is perhaps the ultimate word maven. The son of a linguist who taught Germanic philology at the University of Chicago, Metcalf was an English major on the Hill and editor-in-chief of the Daily Sun as a senior. He served as executive secretary of the American Dialect Society for thirty-seven years. In his seven books on language, he studies lexical units the way an archaeologist examines ancient relics: focus on a specific artifact, discover its origins, consider why it endured, and ponder its significance then and now.

But Metcalf’s work goes beyond the historical; he has also applied his love of language and dialect to contemporary legal settings. As a consultant and expert witness for attorneys and law enforcement—a forensic linguist—Metcalf has weighed in on subjects ranging from contract language to plagiarism. He has consulted about cybersquatting (does “” infringe on Caesar’s Palace?) and trademark and copyright issues (can the American Security Council Foundation trademark the phrase “Peace through strength”?). He has even been asked to determine a caller’s specific dialect in a voice recording and identify the anonymous author of threatening notes.

""The Life of Guy is the latest publication in which Metcalf studies not only the roots of our favorite expressions, but how their evolution into everyday usage reflects historical and cultural trends. “There are lots of books on language out there, and most of them are trivial, telling you how interesting it is that you can park in a driveway and drive on a parkway,” he says. “But I think language tells us a lot about ourselves. So my books use the words to connect to broader themes.” In America in So Many Words (1997), Metcalf and co-author David Barnhart used archival research (newspapers, magazines, books, diaries, letters, legal documents) to retroactively choose Words of the Year, determining exactly when certain terms and expressions first gained prominence—from “cowboy” (1779) to “cafeteria” (1853) to “cool” (1949). In The World in So Many Words (1999), Metcalf explored English words adopted from other languages, like “algebra” (Arabic) and “penguin” (Welsh).

""He also has chronicled regional, generational, and even individual differences in vocabulary. How We Talk (2000) examines how a “hoagie” in Philadelphia might be called a “hero” in New York City. For Presidential Voices (2004), he studied the linguistic practices of each POTUS, listening to voice recordings as far back as Grover Cleveland. And in From Skedaddle to Selfie (2016), Metcalf focused on specific words—like “groovy,” “swell,” “hippie,” and “yuppie”—that represent different generations.

Nearly two decades ago, Metcalf studied the factors that determine the success of newly coined words. Which—like “bunkum” or “bobbysoxer”—will fade over the generations, and which will stick? In his book Predicting New Words (2002), Metcalf introduced the FUDGE scale, an acronym for five determining factors.

Frequency of use: National attention, often in the context of current events, can elevate a word from the fringes of language. A recent example: “chad.” Until the November 2000 presidential election, it was somewhat obscure. Then the controversy over voting punch cards—hanging chads, dimpled chads, pregnant chads—catapulted the word to the front pages.

Unobtrusiveness: Some words created deliberately—like “motel” in 1925—achieve permanence. But Metcalf contends that an under-the-radar word can have long-term viability because it “camouflages itself to give the appearance of something we’ve known all along.” For instance, the word “moonlight,” long an accepted noun, gained traction as a verb in the twentieth century, originally describing the nighttime actions of burglars. But in 1957, Time magazine explained to its readers a newly accepted definition: “holding two jobs at once.” Its transformation was gradual and durable.

Diversity of users and situations: If a wide variety of people use a word in myriad contexts, it can become an entrenched part of the culture. Metcalf says that until the early 1900s the English language generally considered two stages of peoplehood—children and adults. But changes in society (including child labor laws and mandated education) essentially lengthened the pre-adult years. The word “adolescent” remained a largely technical term. But in the late 1930s, a new age-group phenomenon required new terminology, so “teenagers” arrived.

Generation of other forms and meanings: “A new word that generates others also generates a greater chance for its own success,” claims Metcalf. “Watergate,” for example, was merely the name of a hotel in Washington, D.C., before generally encompassing Nixon Administration corruption. Nowadays, thanks to early promotion by New York Times columnist William Safire, its suffix is used to describe most any perceived scandal, from Bill Clinton and “Travelgate” to the debunked 2016 “Pizzagate” conspiracy.

Endurance of the concept: Metcalf claims it often takes about forty years to determine whether a word will achieve permanence. Some words, like “phonograph” and “jalopy,” fade when they become antiquated. Likewise, “typewriter” declined with the advent of the word processor. But the verb “to type” didn’t, because the concept—to write something by pressing keys—was durable enough to survive beyond the object.

""Metcalf’s first book devoted to a single word, published in 2010, was OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, which chronicled the emergence and endurance of what he calls “the most famous expression ever invented in America or perhaps the whole world.” Metcalf chronicles how OK began as a joking misspelling of the first letters of “all correct” by a Boston newspaper editor in 1839. Then it was adopted as a nickname for President Martin Van Buren (“Old Kinderhook”) during the 1840 presidential campaign. Soon, it became the standard “transmission received” expression after the invention of the telegraph. Now it is a global export used countless times in myriad ways every day.

But why study “guy”? Because it has all the elements that fascinate a philologist—quirky origins, an unexpected evolution, and usage so broad that it is currently ubiquitous. The word’s journey required what Metcalf describes as “many accidents of history” that turned one man’s infamy into pervasive vocabulary. “Guy,” he says, “is a worthy sequel to OK.”

Published by Oxford University Press, The Life of Guy starts in London with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Guy Fawkes and a dozen co-conspirators plotted to restore Catholic rule in England by exploding thirty-six barrels of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords in an attempt to kill King James I and scores of government officials. Fawkes was caught red-handed—with a tinderbox in his pocket. Although he wasn’t the ringleader, he became the public face of the attempted act of terrorism. His first name was just distinctive enough to be memorable. Had he stuck with his original alias when caught—John Johnson—we likely wouldn’t be saying “you johns” today.

Fawkes was publically executed—hanged, drawn, and quartered, no less—but his name lived on. Parliament decreed that thereafter November 5 would celebrate a plot thwarted, including church services and bonfires. By the eighteenth century, children could be found begging for “pennies for the Guy” to pay for an effigy that would be paraded and burned on Guy Fawkes Night. Eventually, the proper name became generic, as slang for a man of low character or lousy fashion. “Nobody noticed its encroachment,” Metcalf writes. “It could develop meanings naturally as contexts changed.” In the twentieth century, it expanded to reference a man of any class. Strangely enough, its plural form began to include women, too.

But it took centuries for it to evolve into its current “you guys” usage, and for that we can largely thank the demise of another word—“thou” (see below). Not only was it unusual for a fundamental pronoun to fade away, there was also no suitable replacement. “It’s remarkable,” says Metcalf. “Going back through the history of English, there had been no vacancies.” Stretching “you” to cover both the singular and the plural? That wasn’t ideal. So “you guys” filled the void. Will “you guys” fade as a result of the expanding inclusivity debate—which has already led some people to replace it with “you folks” or “y’all”? Maybe. Or maybe not. As Metcalf notes: “The future of language is not only unpredictable, but sometimes unimaginable.”

Of course, Guy Fawkes—who enjoyed a modern revival when a character in the 2005 film V for Vendetta wore a mask of his likeness, which was later adopted by members of the protest group Occupy Wall Street—isn’t the only person who has gained linguistic immortality. We pay homage to largely forgotten figures each time we act independent-minded (Samuel Maverick), fashion facial hair (Ambrose Burnside), redraw political district maps (Elbridge Gerry), eat s’mores (Sylvester Graham), and wear knee-length garments (Amelia Bloomer). But it is unprecedented for a man’s name to evolve into a basic feature of our lexicon. “He successfully infiltrated the English language,” Metcalf writes, “even as he didn’t manage to successfully command the cellar under the House of Lords.”

Address Changes

In an excerpt, Metcalf ponders ‘thou,’ the once-popular pronoun whose demise paved the way for ‘you guys’

Losing pronouns seems careless. Pronouns are not like nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, which our language is full of (half a million or more of them). But we have just a handful of pronouns, and they have the important job of connecting what we say to the people and things in the world around us: We like it, They admire her, I enjoy him, and so on.

We refer to ourselves with first-person pronouns: I, me, my, mine, in the singular; we, us, our, ours in the plural. Third-person pronouns refer to others who aren’t directly involved in the conversation: he, she, it, his, her, hers, its, in the singular; they, them, their, theirs, in the plural. And then there is our particular concern, the second-person pronouns. That’s someone I’m speaking to or directly addressing in writing.

With “thou” disappearing, “you” stretched from the plural to cover the singular too, with forms you, your, yours. The only problem is, under that arrangement you can’t tell singular from plural, which personal pronouns need to do. As long as “thou” was available, English had no such problem. In Old English times, a thousand years ago, English had the ancestors of “thou” and “you” for second-person singular pronouns. “Art thou Beowulf?” they could ask, and “Where are ye from?” Simple and uncomplicated enough.

In what we call the Middle English period, from about 1100 to 1500 CE, the English language added a complication that would eventually lead to the eighteenth-century disappearance of “thou.” In common with other major European languages, including French, Italian, and Spanish, English speakers began addressing their superiors and even their equals as “you,” rather than “thou,” or some other plural pronoun, even when they were speaking to only one person. In English, “thou” did continue for centuries to be used when talking with servants and others of lower class, as well as in intimate relations like those of families or lovers.

The older use of singular pronouns continued in the English Renaissance, and of course it shows up in Shakespeare. Legal documents from that time also show that people were putting “thee” and “thou” to use as insults. The attorney general at Sir Walter Raleigh’s trial taunted Raleigh by saying, “All that he did was at thy instigation, thou viper; for I thou thee, thou traitor.” But by his time “thou” was fading. Why it did nobody knows for sure, but there is no question that already even in the sixteenth century more and more people avoided “thou.”

In other European languages, the plain forms of address equivalent to “thou” remain to this day, along with the polite plural alternatives equivalent to “you” or “they.” In English, the polite form totally vanquished the plain one, except in archaic remnants. Perhaps there was more of a democratic spirit among English speakers, thinking everyone deserves respect, even the lowliest of servants. Perhaps more likely, it was by no means easy to determine at once whether a stranger you met was of equal or higher or lower status. The safest choice, in that case, would be “you.” That would always imply respect, rather than “thou,” which could well have been an insult.

In any case, as “thou” receded, it rapidly became more and more of an insult to use “thou” instead of “you,” because now instead of routinely saying “thou” to someone of lower class, there was always the polite alternative “you.”

This doesn’t mean “thou” was completely gone. “Thou” persisted in religious tradition that was loath to change familiar words. The King James Bible of the early seventeenth century followed the pronoun conventions of its predecessor, the Tyndale version, maintaining the older, simpler Old English distinction of “thou” addressing one person or divine figure, “you” for many. And since the King James Bible is so admired for its language, it has helped keep “thou” in print even to the present day.

Another exception is patriotic songs, at least those written in the United States in the nineteenth century, like Samuel Francis Smith’s 1831 “America,” which begins:

My country, ’tis of thee, / Sweet land of liberty, / Of thee I sing!

Likewise in “America the Beautiful,” written in 1893 by Katharine Lee Bates, inspired by a view of Pikes Peak:

America! America! / God shed His grace on thee, / And crown thy good with brotherhood / From sea to shining sea!

Other songs, however, don’t attempt old-fashioned “thou”s. “The Star-Spangled Banner” (1814), for example, begins “O say, can ‘you’ see.”

All this is to explain a very unusual situation: how it became possible for “guy,” referring at first to a certain kind of man, then to any kind of man, and eventually even to include women, to become our present-day second-person plural pronoun. The space was vacant, and no word or phrase was successful at filling it in the eighteenth century or indeed the nineteenth. So the space remained open until “you guys” came along in the twentieth century.

Excerpted and condensed from THE LIFE OF GUY: GUY FAWKES, THE GUNPOWDER PLOT, AND THE UNLIKELY HISTORY OF AN INDISPENSABLE WORD by Allan Metcalf. Copyright © 2019 by Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.


2 thoughts on “In a Word

  1. J.D. 1971

    Some ten to twenty years ago William Safire in his New York Times (Sunday) Magazine column made the definitive statement that “guy” had by that time become as acceptable for references to women as to men. I took it as welcome support for the obvious spoken usage that I have observed for at least the last forty years and have cited it when helpful. Of course, as Bill Bryson put it equally definitively in The Mother Tongue (supply virtual italics there if preferred) there are no rules of grammar, merely variations in use of spoken and written English (a living language and all that) that satisfy or violate the “rules” of one of umpteen grammatical masterworks adopted by some body or other, say The New York Times, educational and governmental institutions, and the like. Bryson immediately liberated me from farther (smiley face – he’s in England I think, I’m over here) concern when reading in the daily papers (including NYT) the typical “there’s” when the meaning is what I understand to be “there are”. I have never since even considered there’re any further reasons to gripe about that theres’ usage or any other. Bring it. Grammar, schmammer. I love it but happily let it slip away when the words right themselves and you no it is rite; write? (“Yes it is”, as John Lennon did say). (Okay, diction, schmiction then.)

    Thanks for this; can’t weight to read some hefty Allen Metcalf works.
    Sam Kilbourn, ’71L

  2. 1973 Law School

    The article, which I enjoyed thoroughly, states that, besides Guy Fawkes, “it is unprecedented for a man’s name to evolve into a basic feature of our lexicon.”

    What about Sir John Harington, who invented a forerunner to the modern flush toilet, only to enshrine his first name in that foul position? Or Michael “Mickey” Finn, who used chloral hydrate knockout drops to incapacitate and rob his customers; hence the usage, “slipped him/her a Mickey”?

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