May 29, 2015 by libroshombre
Curious about the origin of the term “guy,” as in “Guys Read Program,” I turned to my trusty edition of H.L. Mencken’s great 1936 classic study, “American Language.” Years ago I learned that this book offers almost unlimited browsing ecstasy for those interested in our language, and this time an extra measure of pleasure was meted out in the form of an old 1950s-era clipping titled, “Have Ya Got a Geet for the Dil-Ya-Bla?,” that was tucked between some previously unexamined pages. “In addition to its influences on the ‘music’ and clothing worlds, whether you want to believe it or not, Bebop has also made its contributions to the English Language,” the article begins. “If you ever get caught between two Bebopers, these are some of the words they may use: Let’s scarf, Daddy-O (Let’s eat, friend), Oop-pop-a-sa, nab! (Hello, cop!), Pay some dues on the Hollywood eyes (Spend some money on that pretty girl), and Lu cu pu, lop-pow (Good night, everything’s OK).”
None of those phrases lasted, and only a couple of the Bebop terms listed endured even in modified forms: “gig” (defined then as a job for one night only), and “turn on” (smoke a cigarette). In comparison, “guy” has done quite well. According to Mencken, “A ‘guy’ in England is a ridiculous figure, and thus the word is opprobrious; in the United States the word is hardly more than an amiable synonym for fellow. The English ‘guy’ owes its origin to the effigies of Guy Fawkes, leader of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 … the American word seems to be derived from the ‘guy-rope’ of a circus tent, and first appeared in the complimentary form of ‘head-guy.’”
Mencken, who had no advanced education, referred to his masterpiece as “a gaudy piece of buncombe, rather neatly done,” but it was “the first attempt since Noah Webster’s at an overview of the national language,” as a critic wrote in “The Wilson Quarterly.” Mencken wrote than “Buncombe” was the name of a North Carolina county whose Congressman insisted on speaking dully and to no effect on so many legislativeissues that it came to mean “empty talk.” “Buncombe” was adopted in England as “bunkum,” and then “the American clipped form ‘bunk’ arose toward the end of the World War,” and “the verb ‘debunk’ followed ten years later.”
Mencken scorned academia almost as much as the proletarian “yokelry” who created and adopted new Americanisms willy-nilly. Shortly after its publication, he wrote to a friend, “The truth is that the academic idiots are all taking it very seriously, greatly to my joy.” He reveled in his cynicism, but in fact he’d created a significant and entertaining addition to American literature.
Mencken did most of his research for American Language during the World War I era. He was as proud of his German ancestry as he was of his hometown of Baltimore. He was just as suspicious of the British propaganda machine, and wrote about it in no uncertain terms. When American war fever was aroused, his popularity as America’s leading journalist plummeted, and he retreated into etymological research, the results of which you can borrow from your public library.
There you can also check out most of the books featured by the Guys Read program. The fifty-odd titles were chosen to appeal to fourth grade boys. The main goal of Guys Read is to show the age group most likely to stop reading for pleasure that some books are lots of fun. However, we created Guys Read ten years ago to attract more non-library using families to visit Noel Wien through the GuysRead parties held there at the end of each year’s program. It’s proven successful at that, but it was immediately apparent that the program’s biggest effect was inspiring boys to keep reading for fun.
You’re probably familiar with our splendid library’s many offerings, like telephone reference service. If you want eleven million answers, as they say, try Google; if you want the correct answer, call a librarian. By dialing 459-1046 you can speak to real live librarian who’ll happily look up word and phrase origins, and learn that “geet for the dil-ya-bla” means “money for the telephone.”