Bonfire or Guy Fawkes Night

Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

On the night of 4 November 1605 Guy Fawkes, a Catholic, was discovered in an undercroft of the House of Lords guarding a hoard of gunpowder intended to explode the following day at the state opening of Parliament and thereby assassinate the Protestant King James I and annihilate the government. The plan was to place the king’s nine-year-old daughter on the throne.

As news of James’s lucky escape circulated, Londoners lit bonfires in celebration. The following year (1606), an act of parliament enshrined 5 November as a day of public thanksgiving. And so it has been celebrated ever since with bonfires and fireworks great and small.

Supposedly Bonfire Night is for children to ooh and aah at the cascading lights, the fusillade of explosions and the roaring bonfires. But it’s a safe bet that many adults enjoy the event just as much, for it revives memories of their own delighted wonderment as children. Well, it does for me, anyway. I can recall the thrill of clutching sparklers in my six-year-old mitts and twirling them round to make scintillating patterns against the November murk. (Yes, to scintillate means literally ‘to give off sparks’ but its metaphorical meaning long ago outstripped its literal one.) But I doubt that these days I’ll hear the pleading cry ‘a penny for the guy’ squeaked by children wheeling a barrow with a stuffed guy in it.

Though they used to come in paper bags, sparklers do what it says on the tin: sparkle. Far from transparently named is another firework that was a thrill, the whirling Catherine wheel. Little did I realise as a child quite how gruesome its name is. It commemorates St Catherine of Alexandria, a fourth-century Christian virgin who, on command of the Roman emperor, was due to be martyred on a spiked execution wheel – but it broke when she touched it, so she had to be beheaded. Her cult was once widespread, and she is accordingly portrayed holding her wheel in countless major paintings and frescoes. Another firework with a Roman connection is the Roman candle, but its origin is innocuous: this type of firework was introduced from Italy in the nineteenth century.

Although we now mostly think Guy Fawkes Night when we think of bonfires, they existed long before and were used in other celebrations, for instance at midsummer on St John’s Eve, 23 June, a tradition which continues to this day in Denmark, Italy and elsewhere. Our modern pronunciation disguises the word’s origins in bone + fire, though exactly why bones and which bones were used as fuel is unclear.

As for firework, a simple combination of fire + work, it makes use of the meaning ‘result, produce of work’, which is as old as Old English. But if we need an adjective meaning ‘relating to fireworks’, as so often happens we have to lay hands on a Greek-derived word, pyrotechnic. The pyro– element, which also appears in pyromaniac, for example, is from the Greek word pyr (πῦρ). Historically speaking, in fact, fire and pyr are closely related, as explained by the workings of Grimm’s Law.

Another type of small firework is a squib, a word which is probably onomatopoeic (I had to concentrate really hard when keying that), that is, imitating a sound. In this case, if you think of a short-lived, hissing explosion it is just possible to match the noise to the word. A disappointing event can be described as a damp squib, which has given rise to the eggcorn ‘a damp squid’, a title I used for a book.

Guy Fawkes was a Yorkshireman from York. The church where he was baptised, St Michael le Belfrey,** sits in the shadow of York Minster. Just across from the church stands the Guy Fawkes pub. Apart from immortalising Guy Fawkes in that pub name and on Guy Fawkes night, we do so each and every time we use the word guy to mean ‘man’. It’s an excellent illustration of how dramatically words can change meaning over time and it developed like this. First, on the basis of the stuffed effigy of Guy Fawkes traditionally burned on Bonfire Night came the meaning ‘someone of grotesquely dressed or frightening appearance’. Then, by the mid-nineteenth century, the word began to be applied, originally in the U.S., to any male. And now of course, as a form of address, e.g. ‘Hey, guys’, it can refer to mixed groups or even to all-female groups.

** That’s how it’s spelled, but belfry normally has no second ‘e’.

By Jeremy Butterfield
Jeremy Butterfield is the former Editor-in-Chief of Collins Dictionaries, and editor of the fourth, revised edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.

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