It’s a Guy Thing

I don’t know what kind of party my grandson Yaakov Chaim (AKA Yankel) was planning. Alas, I was 6,000 miles away, in Brooklyn. But two days before his sixth birthday, Yankel called me from Yerushalayim and asked, “How do fireworks work?”

Being a searcher (which is not the same as a seeker), I did what I always do: I looked it up.

(Gunpowder is the main ingredient. When ignited, it goes off with a bang. Then, once it’s in the air, a second payload of gunpowder explodes. The flashes and array of colors come from a mixture of metal salts.)

Later, Yankel’s mother (aka Ariella Schiller) took time from Pesach preparation (and her next novel) and wrote me:

“He asked me the question. I told him I don’t know. He said, ‘Let’s ask Zeidy (aka Grandpa). Zeidy knows almost everything.’ Then he added, ‘How does Zeidy know almost everything?’”

I thanked her. But I insisted that the rumor is propaganda spread by my wife (aka Bubby).

Then I asked, “But why ‘almost’ everything?”

If people think I know a lot, it’s only because I follow the dictum of the granddaddy of lexicographers, Samuel Johnson: “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.”

You could look it up.

Did you ever notice how when you’re involved with something you see it everywhere? There’s a name for that. Ben Zimmer reported on Language Log that the Oxford English Dictionary added a citation for the concept from Arnold Zwicky, professor of linguistics at Stanford University:

“Another selective attention effect is the Frequency Illusion: once you’ve noticed a phenomenon, you think it happens a whole lot, even ‘all the time.’”

But it was no illusion that I just so happened to be working with gunpowder when Yankel called to ask about fireworks.

Heavens no, not real gunpowder! I had enough of that when I was training for Mishmar Ezrachi (civil guard) duty in Israel with an M1 carbine. Guns are not for this guy.

(Spoiler alert: Don’t look now but you’ve been set up. I pulled Chekhov’s gun on you: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” No; don’t call the cops. Chekhov’s gun is just a variation of foreshadowing — the literary device of hinting at something coming later in the story.)

Are you from the old school? Does it rankle you when someone asking about your family says, “How are you guys?” and uses guys to refer to men and women? Join the club. (No, don’t use a club; it won’t help anyway. Just know you’re not alone.)

When and how did “you guys” come to include males and females? For that matter, where in the word did guy come from?

In Zimmer’s Wall St. Journal language column, he featured a new book by Alan Metcalf of MacMurray College — The Life of Guy: Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Unlikely History of an Indispensable Word.

In a dazzling display of etymological pyrotechnics, Metcalf told a bang-up story of palace intrigue, religious strife, terrorism, and the ultimate transformation of a terrorist into a culture icon. (Did I hear someone say “Viva Che”?)

In 1529, Henry VIII — every mother-in-law’s worst nightmare — flip-flopped from being a devout Catholic to arrogating all religious authority in England to himself because the pope refused to annul his marriage. It gets gory. But all you need to know is that the schism set off a century of war between Protestants and Catholics.

To cut to the chase, in 1604, a plot was hatched to blow up King James, the queen and most of the government at the opening session of Parliament, November 5, 1605. The plotters placed 36 barrels of gunpowder in a cellar beneath the House of Lords.

The point man was a battle-hardened gunpowder expert named Guy Fawkes. As he was about to light the fuse, Fawkes was caught, arrested, then tortured for three days until he finally cracked.

Every November 5 since then, England celebrates the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot on Guy Fawkes Day with bonfires and — what else — fireworks. A special feature of the festivity was burning garish effigies of Guy Fawkes.

Over the years, the effigies came to be called Guys or guys. Then, somehow, the name moved from the effigies to garishly dressed men. Eventually, through the folk process of norma loquendi — the everyday voice of the native speaker — guy came to mean any man.

But what about “you guys”? Metcalf explained that, by some transformational lingwizardry, just when the second-person pronoun “thou” was fading from the English language, “you guys” appeared to fill the vacuum — similar to the Southern “y’all” or the less common (and less friendly) New Yorkese “youse.”

I asked Zimmer why addressing a group as “you guys” is any different from saying “Ladies and gentlemen.” He explained that linguists call these forms vocatives — a form of direct address. But no one says, “Let me tell ladies and gentlemen.”

But you guys means you.

So, just chill out when people say “you guys.” Guys shmuys; as long as we’re mentchen.


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