Skip to content

Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: Guy Fawkes Day

stand-up guy

(1970’s | journalese? politese? | “someone you can count on,” “mensch,” “rock”)

Quite a stand of “stands” we’ve cultivated in English — I’ve but scratched the surface in memorializing “stand down” and “standalone.” “Stand up” has its own roster of expressions, any of which could be the root of “stand-up guy.” My notion is that the original use was weighted more heavily toward the idea of standing up to someone, such as a bully, or something, such as a faceless bureaucracy. Willing to resist, or at least show spirit in defense of one’s values or allies. But there’s also “stand up for,” to defend, which is the same idea but plays out differently. You can stand up to someone by standing up for something, of course; the phrases work together well. An older expression, “stand up and be counted,” could also be an ancestor, though the connection is not as clear. But it is quite clear that a stand-up guy would never stand anyone up.

The expression is always laudatory, but its precise meaning may be hard to pin down. It seems to reach into three separate but overlapping circles of a Venn diagram: the honest and honorable; the tough and brave; and the reliable and trustworthy. Stand-up guys exhibit at least one of those sets of traits and quite possibly more. I do get the sense that reliability is very often part of what we appeal to when we use this expression, at least in everyday life. It’s not as spectacular as the feisty aspects, but a stand-up guy is someone who steps up time after time. You don’t earn the distinction by doing the right thing once; you have to do it again and again, showing those affected that you will back them up whenever they need it.

“Stand-up guy” doesn’t seem to have anything to do with “stand-up comedian,” a term that appears to have arisen a little earlier and might also be an influence. Here standing up is a literal description of what the performer does, but it’s also an indication of what she doesn’t do — act, sing, perform tricks, etc. A stand-up comedian just stands there and talks. It is a neutral term for a certain kind of performer and doesn’t convey praise, unlike “stand-up guy.”

A notable feature of this week’s expression is that it is invariable — cf. “smartest guy in the room,” which admits of substitutions. I don’t know what you call a woman who displays the same characteristics. “Guy” is a funny word. As a man’s name, it means “guide” or “leader.” Its use as a common term for adult man came into being in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and according to Webster’s Second, it was at first derogatory. In fact, the word had referred to an effigy of Guy Fawkes, or any grotesque or distorted effigy, so when it was first used to refer to living persons, it’s not surprising that it took on a negative tinge. (It could also denote a funny-looking or oddly dressed man.) But by mid-century in the U.S. it had lost all that and turned into a standard, if slightly slangy, term; today it is perhaps the most frequently used. (“Guys” in the plural may refer to women, but you would not use the singular to refer to one woman). It still retains a bit of the old insulting quality, to my ear, when used in direct address; “Hey, buddy” may or may not be friendly, but “Hey, guy” never is. Under most circumstances it sounds quite natural, and the odd phrase like “stand-up guy” may even lend it a celebratory air.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,