A penny for the guy
The meaning of the phrase 'A penny for the guy'
'A penny for the guy' is the request that children make when begging for money to buy fireworks for Bonfire Night celebrations. It used to be a commonplace in the streets of the UK in early November but is less so in the 21st century.
The origin of the phrase 'A penny for the guy' - the quick version
The expression 'A penny for the guy' holds a nostalgic significance for many English people. In this phrase, 'guy' refers to Guy Fawkes, a historical figure with a central role in English history. Fawkes was involved in a 1605 plot to assassinate King James I. The plot was foiled when he was discovered with 36 barrels of gunpowder beneath the Parliament building.
Guy Fawkes met a gruesome end, hanged, drawn, and quartered for his involvement in the plot. Despite his fate, the memory of the Gunpowder Plot persisted through the centuries. The famous rhyme "Remember, remember the 5th of November, The gunpowder treason and plot..." is still recited, and the events of November 5th, 1605 have been commemorated for over 400 years.
Traditionally, people would construct effigies of Guy Fawkes, known as 'the guy,' and burn them on bonfires during these commemorations. The phrase 'Penny for the guy' emerged when children would create a 'guy' made of old clothes and ask for pennies from passers by. Over time, these celebrations have evolved, with organized fireworks displays and feasts, but the burning of a Guy Fawkes effigy remained a central element.
The decline of Bonfire Night's popularity, coupled with changes in public attitudes toward street begging, has resulted in 'a penny for the guy' becoming a rarity. Nevertheless, the memory of the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes lives on in the English cultural consciousness.
The origin of the phrase 'A penny for the guy' - the full story
There can hardly be any more nostalgic a phrase for English people of a certain age than 'A penny for the guy'. For Americans and others who have adopted American English a 'guy' is just a man. For the English, Guy wasn't just any old guy, he was Guy Fawkes.
By the way: the Union between the countries of the UK runs through this story. For me, the 'penny for the guy' story is archetypally English and in the piece below I refer frequently to England. If you are Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish and feel I've left you out then just replace England with your country of choice.
If you aren't familiar with English history, here's a brief run-down of who Guy Fawkes was and why the English care about him.
The first thing to know is that the struggle for supremacy between Catholics and Protestants has been central to the fortunes English monarchy for centuries.
When the staunchly Protestant James VI of Scotland was invited to become king of England in 1603 the English Catholics rebelled and attempted to have him replaced by the Catholic Philip of Spain.
James was due to attend the State Opening of Parliament on November 5th, 1605. A group of Catholics, who these days would surely be labelled as terrorists, plotted to kill James by blowing up the parliament building. To cut a long story short, Guido (aka Guy) Fawkes and 36 barrels of gunpowder were discovered in the cellars of the building. Traitors to the crown weren't looked on sympathetically in 17th century England and Fawkes was hanged, drawn and quartered on 31st January 1606. That was the most horrible death that the state could devise. Nevertheless, Fawkes may have welcomed his end as it halted the relentless torture on the rack that he had suffered for several weeks.
So, that's Guy. What about the penny?
There's a rhyme, very familiar to UK residents, to encourage us to continue the tradition:
Remember, remember the 5th of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot,
I know of no reason why gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot.
And we have remembered. Every November 5th for the more than 400 years since 1605 there have been commemorations of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot.
To begin with these were small impromptu gathering where effigies of Guy Fawkes were burned on a bonfire.
(It's worth noting that 'bonfire' derives from 'bone fire', that is, a fire where heretics were burned.)
Over time these celebrations became more organised, including fireworks and feasting, but the highlight was always the burning of an effigy of Guy Fawkes.
Back in the days of my youth in 1950s Black Country England, in early November, I and my friends would make an effigy of Guy Fawkes out of old clothes stuffed with newspaper. The 'Guy' was then taken around the streets where we begged for pennies to buy fireworks and kindling. The penny we asked for wasn't for the guy of course, it was for the means of setting fire to him. In those days many people held bonfires in their back gardens.
Sad to say but Bonfire Night, which is one of the few national English celebrations that has been kept alive by public enthusiasm rather than commercial hype or state sponsorship, is not what it was. At this time of year, Halloween, which used to be seen as an unwelcome American import, has become more prominent.
Back garden bonfires went out of favour due to health and safety fears. Even the council run bonfires that replaced them are now few and far between. The decline of Guy Fawkes Night and a change in the public tolerance of street begging has meant that the call of 'a penny for the guy' is now rarely heard. It is probably going the same way that pennies themselves have gone for most children today - something their parents know about but they don't.
However, the number of names and phrases in English that refer to the doings of November 1605 do show that the 5th of November hasn't been forgot:
The Gunpowder Plot
Guy Fawkes Night
Gunpowder, treason and plot
Hanged, drawn and quartered
A penny for the guy