Fall guy

Fall guy

A "fall guy" is a person used as a scapegoat to take the blame for someone else's actions, or someone at the butt of jokes. One placed in the position of "fall guy" is often referred to as "taking the fall". In the film industry, a "fall guy" is a form of stock character.


The origin of fall guy is currently unknown. Many sources (see below) place the origin at the early 20th century, and some claim it is of even earlier origin. As such the origins of the term is in a state of open contention. In April 2007 William Safire promoted a search to properly unearth its origins. [http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/01/magazine/01wwln-safire.t.html?_r=1&ref=magazine&oref=slogin] His follow-up article is here: [http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/29/magazine/29wwlnsafire.t.html?ref=magazine] .

The most likely origin of fall guy, is a derivation of the slang 'fall' which means to be arrested, so the fall guy is, generally, one who is arrested. [http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node=Fall] As yet, no citation of 'fall' in this context has been placed prior to the 1904/1906 origin dates claimed by HDAS and OED, respectively.

Four slightly different usages for fall guy arise. The origins of all four are probably different. The usages:

#Scapegoat (an innocent one). [implies 3]
#'Betrayed confederate' (guilty scapegoat); here one criminal (willingly or unwillingly) is arrested and sacrificed, while the rest of the criminals go free. [implies 4, sometimes 3]
#Dupe, the fool; the butt of jokes.
#'One who takes on the responsibilities or workload of others' (see Gary Martin, below). Possibly used in the worker-bee, gruntwork sense. No foul play implied.

The phrase may have originated separately more than once, or the term may have cross-pollinated to different industries and thereby gained additional meanings. In any case, if the origin of fall guy was as the criminal scapegoat, then whenever its written origins were, they are apt to be much later than its first verbalized use, since putting criminal conspiracies on print leads to short careers for crooks. Another subtle point is that the criminal usage gets back to the original sense of 'felon' (derived from fallen, morally).

Other alternatives and citations:

* According to a source, Lighter's Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS) places the origin in 1904 (although it is apparently missing citations for 1906). The usage here may have a flavor relating more to the 'straight scapegoat' and less of the 'betrayed confederate.' [http://groups.google.com/group/alt.usage.english/browse_thread/thread/01f4571ca01a5354/c7794bc822a3d42c?lnk=raot&&_done=%2Fgroup%2Falt.usage.english%2Fbrowse_thread%2Fthread%2F01f4571ca01a5354%2Fc7794bc822a3d42c%3Flnk%3Draot%26]

* According to a the same source the Oxford English Dictionary places the origin sometime in 1906 (Green At Actors' Boarding House 226). The usage here conforms to that of the 'betrayed confederate.' [http://groups.google.com/group/alt.usage.english/browse_thread/thread/01f4571ca01a5354/c7794bc822a3d42c?lnk=raot&&_done=%2Fgroup%2Falt.usage.english%2Fbrowse_thread%2Fthread%2F01f4571ca01a5354%2Fc7794bc822a3d42c%3Flnk%3Draot%26]

* "Who Planned the Steunenberg Murder?; Forthcoming Trial of the Men Charged With Conspiracy in the Assassination of Idaho's Ex-Governor. Most Sensational Case of Its Kind Since the Trial of Guiteau, the Murderer of Garfield---Will the Extraordinary Confession of Orchard, Who Turned State's Evidence, Be Corroborated? Who Planned the Assassination of Ex-Governor Steunenberg of Idaho?" NY Times, April 29, 1906, Sunday. This article is different but concurrent with the OED citation (no within year dates for OED citation yet found). Available only to in NY Times Archive (unless the NYTimes decides to open up this particular article) [http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FB0C1FF83A5A12738DDDA00A94DC405B868CF1D3]

:*In the article a minor criminal, named Adams, is not sent a defense attorney, while many other of his colleagues are. Feeling "piqued", he calls the police and confesses; his quote: '"They can't make me the 'fall guy.'"'

:*The quote leaves open the three various flavors of meaning: one who takes the workload/responsibility, one who is duped, and one who is sacrificed (by a guilty group). Other 1906 citation possibly/probably relate to this source.

* Online Etymological Dictionary places the origin at 1906. [http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=Fall&searchmode=none] The actual passage they cite is unstated, although probably citing the OED.

* Gary Martin places the origin to at least 1904 (Oakland Tribune, Dec 1904) although possibly earlier. [http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/fall-guy.html] Although the citation Martin provides shades meaning more closely to "one who takes on the responsibilities or workload of others" (this sense seems analogous to the modern phrase 'delegate down') than to the more criminal connotation. He also makes a connection to the phrase 'fall money' which existed in late 19th century American idiom. If fall guy derives from 'fall money,' then it may be the earliest possibility. (Seems to be a quote different from, yet concurrent with, JE Lighter's.)

* "POOLROOM SHARPS SWOOP ON BASEBALL; Crippled Badly by Race Track Legislation, Gamblers Turn to National Game." NY Times, February 28, 1911, Tuesday; the phrase 'fall guy' here refers, apparently, to a sucker who makes bets at bad odds (confirmation?). There is a reference to being unable (or with difficulty) to hedge bets against a "'Dutch' book -- with reverse English." No guilt is associated with the fall guy, only gullibility. [http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F30910F9385517738DDDA10A94DA405B818DF1D3]

* This old story, a run-down of plays by Time magazine from Mar. 23, 1925 clearly puts this usage during a time in which, if Teapot Dome really related to this phrase, then such references to that scandal might be found. No references to Teapot Dome are found. Usage: innocent scapegoat duped into criminal activity and attracting the attention of police. Usage of the phrase is almost decadent (as in 'unrestrained gratification; self-indulgent' (free online dictionary), but also as in the period just past its historical high-watermark--many plays of the era seem to have focused on the plight of the fall guy and the rise of crime that came with the Prohibition; the play cited in the article already seems a re-hash of various plays that came before it). The article more clearly conveys the full sweep, and as such, is suggested reading (scroll to middle of page). [http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,881458,00.html]

* Was at least in prominent use by 1930 when Hammett published The Maltese Falcon. Hammett's usage differs somewhat from some of the earlier definitions in that the fall guy wasn't an innocent scapegoat blamed for the wrongdoing belonging in whole to other parties, but rather part of a criminal group (in which blame/guilt should be shared) that is then jettisoned and sacrificed to get the heat off of the rest of the group. Thus the scapegoat is guilty anyway. And it is with this sense that the word is commonly used today.

* Various compiled glossaries:

:* "WORDS NOT WHAT THEY SEEM; In Underworld Argot They Have Different Meanings From Those Found in Dictionaries." NYTimes July 19, 1931, Sunday; article about John Wilstach compiled jargon dictionary has both 'fall guy' and 'fall money.' So both phrases were well known and out in public by then. Available in NY Times Archive. [http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FB0A16FC3C5F1B728DDDA00994DF405B818FF1D3]

:* Possibly arose from Hobo Lingo. Given that Hobo origins predate the turn of the 20th Century, the origin might lie here. Or they may have just picked it up from the criminal classes. (academic citation, 1926) [http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-1283(192609)1%3A12%3C650%3AHL%3E2.0.CO%3B2-O] (A similar meaning is found in 'Vocabulary of Bums'.)::* fall guy, n. easy victim

:* Criminal lingo (undated). (academic citation) [http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-1283%28193502%2910%3A1%3C10%3ATLOTG%3E2.0.CO%3B2-5&size=LARGE] ::* to fall, n. to get in trouble with the law

:* Prison Parlance (see Jstor.org)::* fall, v. go to prison; n. a term in prison (see also 'get up')

:* Lingo of the Good People (see Jstor.org)::* fall money, n. defense fund::* fall guy - clumsy thief (who gets caught):::: - one who "involuntarily" takes rap

* Definition from American Underworld Dictionary gives slightly different meanings: 1. Any person, "guilty or innocent" (emphasis added), who takes full blame to shield others. 2. A fool; a bungling criminal; a stupid tool of crafty criminals. "These stirs (prisons) are full of fall guys and squares (accidental criminals). All the hip (smart) ghees (fellows) hit the counties (country jails) or the street (win acquittals or bribe their way out)." [http://everything2.com/index.pl?node=Fall%20guy] (see also their usage of 'fall dough' [http://everything2.com/index.pl?node=bite] )

* "CIRCUS FANS INDUCT ADMIRAL WOODWARD; He Becomes the 'Fall Guy' for Saints and Sinners" NYTimes February 27, 1941, Thursday; usage referring plainly to 'butt of jokes' with no criminal connotation. [http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10614FD3859167B93C5AB1789D85F458485F9]

* Other sources assert origin to 1906, although without attribution. [http://www.northvegr.org/holy/f.php]

* Origin in 19th century professional wrestling. [http://www.mindlesscrap.com/origins/more-a.htm#F] (This site doesn't provide citation.) Significantly predates other origins, so claims must be met with scrutiny and skepticism, demanding a citation. :*This Voice of America radio broadcast transcript also supports this position, but proper supporting citations are not yet found. [http://www.voanews.com/specialenglish/2007-03-19-voa2.cfm]

* One hypothesis puts its origins with the rising film industry; thus the fall guy was a stock character. Considering early film may have relied on much slapstick/physical comedy, this is a hypothesis might have some merit. Additionally, the film industry's beginnings were in the early 1900s, which is consistent with some other speculation. [http://encycl.opentopia.com/term/Fall_guy]

* The Washington Post may have a few citations from as early as 1905 and 1906, but this has not been confirmed (they are in the WaPo archive, access limited) [http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/washingtonpost_historical/results.html?st=advanced&uid=&MAC=50a23aa1f3f5c6104e90e36051420d61&QryTxt=%22fall+guy%22&x=12&y=10&sortby=CHRON&datetype=0&frommonth=01&fromday=01&fromyear=1877&tomonth=12&today=31&toyear=1986&By=&Title=&restrict=articles] .

* (A search on www.jstor.org for 'fall guy' brings up many more historical cases.)

Discredited Origins

Various sources attribute the origin of fall guy to 'Guy Fawkes' and the Gunpowder Plot. This has been largely discredited Fact|date=July 2008.

The Teapot Connection

One popular myth is that the word's origin dates back to the 1920s, during the administration of U.S. President Warren G. Harding (1921 - 1923). The term is allegedly named for Albert B. Fall, a U.S. Senator from New Mexico who served as Secretary of the Interior during Harding's years in office and became notorious for his involvement in the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal.Fact|date=February 2007 Though a popular story, this is not true (although this event may have popularized a phrase (via post-hoc eponymy) that may have otherwise died an inglorious death)Fact|date=April 2007 . Still, the Albert Fall story might be the crucial connection that elevated the term to apply, not merely to everyday crime, but to political debacles.


References to 'fall guy' and Albert Fall seem conspicuously non-existent. The book, The Tempest Over Teapot Dome, [http://www.amazon.com/dp/0806130784/] contains no references to 'fall guy' (as checked by Amazon text search). A Time article from the period makes no reference to 'fall guys,' although the scandal may have had yet to fully play out. [http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,928930-1,00.html]

If there really was an Albert Fall connection, then wouldn't plays/movies like 'The Fall Guy' be expected to allude to the former Secretary? Given all the wiseguys in the genre, could writers be expected to resist the temptation to sneak in a reference? No information from popular allusion has yet been found, although searches have been less than exhaustive. Still, without evidence to support the case, the theory connecting Albert Fall to 'fall guy' might suffer the same ignominy that befell Albert Fall's career. In such a case, although wrongly implicated in the term's origin, with the myth widely persisting, Albert Fall fully becomes the innocent fall guy for the term's origin. Thus, once for Teapot and once for the phrase, Albert Fall becomes the fall guy twice for the same act. With such a feat, should true eponymy be denied? Perhaps not, but if granted, such eponymy would undermine its basis in the first place, making him the fall guy on the one hand, and merely guilty on the other.

The Political Crossover

Given that 'fall guy' originated from lower elements of society, one can ask how the phrase came into the political arena. (Mark Twain quips on Congress aside.) Teapot Dome seems not to provide the link. To successfully enter politics two things must occur: the phrase must be legitimized (cleansed) and the phrase must be tied to a political event.

The legitimization of the phrase seems to have occurred sometime during the 1940s, primarily with the meaning of "take on work/responsibility." A paper on "Isolationism is not dead" (Jstor.org) citation quotes an anonymous editorial from a paper in the Pacific Northwest on the topic of the Bretton Woods and the Food Conferences upon which the US became the "'fall guy,' the one to carry the load." This seems to complete both requirements at once, yet the meaning is clearly not that of the scapegoat. By 1950, fall guy, in the context of unions and industrial society, meant the low man on the totem poll, to whom the unimportant tasks would be assigned, specifically that of filling out questionnaires (Research in Labor Unions; see Jstor.org as well) citation.

By the 1950s and 60's, 'fall guy' came to mean public "whipping boy," although in the abstract, metaphorical sense. Advertising firms were the 'fall guy,' yet no specific ad-man was to blame. In a 1960 paper on the 'Politics of Pollution,' public officials, to deflect criticism over landfills, found a 'fall guy,' but they picked no low-ranking worker to be sacrificed, they blamed instead abstract, faceless bodies: "the federal government, state governments, and private disposal companies." [http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0031-8906(198631)47%3A1%3C71%3ATPOPIF%3E2.0.CO%3B2-3] The fall man still lacked a name and face. (Other abstract 'fall guys' included the railroad and bank capital.) citation

The rise of the 'political' fall guy seems to come from one of three events:

1. JFK assassination. Oswald claimed himself a patsy, but he wasn't officially labelled a fall guy until 1964, by Joachim Joesten, in his book 'Oswald, Assassin or Fall Guy?' Oswald “was ‘a fall guy,’ to use the parlance of the kind of men who must have planned the details of the assassination” [http://karws.gso.uri.edu/jfk/The_critics/Joesten/Joestenbio.html] [http://www.amazon.com/dp/B000OLD29G/] Oswald himself was not a political figure (although few fall guys are really political figures until their fall).

2. Watergate. Former Attorney General John Mitchell claimed he was being set up as a fall guy [http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F00F17F73E59137A93C2AB178ED85F478785F9] . Besides Mitchell, other fall guys were in the works. In "Public Doublespeak: On Mistakes and Misjudgments," Terence Moran cites the fall guy, but also specifically highlights the parallels between a transcript of both Nixon and Dean and a scene from The Maltese Falcon, specifically the one where Wilmer the gunman is sold out. Pulp fiction meets pulp politics. [http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0010-0994(197503)36%3A7%3C837%3APDOMAM%3E2.0.CO%3B2-N] Also cited were the classical signs of the complicitous fall guy: defense funds, care of family, and the duplicitous language of conspiracy itself. (It is only of minor curiosity that Safire, the instigator of this inquiry, is himself quoted in the above article.)

Other retrospective articles on the era which use the phrase include: [http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950DEED91639F930A35754C0A965948260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all] .

Still, widespread use of the phrase doesn't seem to follow specifically from this event. We see an increased rise later in the 1980s (see numbers below).

3. Iran Contra. While clearly not the first case, it was the first case in which the term clearly exploded into public consciousness, if not quite into everyday parlance. (Pre-contra, Safire seems to have kept the phrase alive in the mid 1980's ( [http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F40B14F63B5C0C758DDDAC0894DB484D81] and [http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10B13FD385C0C7A8EDDAE0894DD484D81] .)

Two reasons why use of the phrase fall guy may have exploded after Iran-Contra in 1987. The first: the steadfastness, self-sacrificing loyalty, Oliver North displayed during the hearings. The second: Representative Stokes used the phrase during a session of Congress, as entered into the official transcripts (see official transcript, but also "The discourse of American civil society: A new proposal for cultural studies." Jeffrey C. Alexander1 and Philip Smith. Theory & Society: Vol 22, No 2, p 189. See also [http://www.amazon.ca/dp/0671659383] ).

Articles from the times (and incidentally also the NY Times): [http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B0DE5DF1F38F933A25754C0A961948260] [http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B0DE2D71E38F934A25754C0A961948260] .

Articles from the Washington Post: [http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/washingtonpost/access/8395346.html?dids=8395346&FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS&date=May+7%2C+1989&author=McGrory%2C+Mary&pub=The+Washington+Post&edition=&startpage=B1&desc=Ollie%3A++Felon+and+Fall+Guy] .

The political crossover might be complete, as well as the functional vibrancy of the word itself, after the Libby trial (2007), given that a mere citizen-juror used the phrase as he left the courthouse Fact|date=April 2007.

Citations by the numbers

According to newspaperarchive.com, the use of the phrase "fall guy" in US newspapers breaks down as follows:

Perhaps not surprisingly, popular usage tends to peak not with any political event, but rather with a TV series The Fall Guy, which premiered November 4, 1981 and ended May 2, 1986. The numerous citations are probably TV listing in the papers. But it may have been the fuel which the Iran-Contra hearings sparked into a flame. (Alternatively, this may merely say something about the types of reporters working at the time.)

Other uses

In academic circles, the fall guy was also the straw man, the one picked to lose an argument (British Journal of Sociology, a reviewer of the book 'Legitimation of Power).Fact|date=April 2007

In corporate managerial classes, by 1988 the fall guy was fully institutionalized as a principle, a component of what every good manager needs (R. Jackall, The World of Corporate Management, 1988). Fact|date=April 2007

Scary Man (R) Fall Guy. Cormorant deterrent, used to protect catfish farms. Fact|date=April 2007


Recently (1990's) 'fall guy' became a phrase popular among the commentariat Fact|date=April 2008. But it seems that, while originally, the fall guy had to deal with the authorities (the police), currently, the fall guy must deal with public shame and disgrace (a notable exception here is Scooter Libby).

Taking only a few examples from the current Bush administration, a few examples [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/16/AR2007031602676.html?nav=rss_print/outlook] of fall guys follows:

* Scooter Libby; Plamegate; indicted and convicted, the sentence was later commuted.
* Michael D. Brown; Katrina (relief of); unindicted, resigned.
* Donald H. Rumsfeld; failures of Iraq War (as evidenced in 2006 election); unindicted, resigned.
* Col. Janis Karpinski; Abu Ghraib scandal; demoted.
* Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman; Walter Reed scandal; status unknown.

For the political appointees, it seems that a resignation, and a public shaming is enough punishment. Most political appointees can probably readily find jobs as lobbyists or elsewhere in the public sector, so no financial consequence really follows. Yet, perhaps the political fall guy must suffer some 'political death' (this topic is left for others to expand or contest). For the military officers, a punishment of demotion or reassignment is real enough.

With criminal groups, the fall guy would often be the lowest 'ranking' member, who would take the fall (face arrest and criminal charges) so that the rest could go free. Whether or not the lowest member could rely on the rest for support once out of prison is debatable. But in the political arena, the fall guy seems to function much the same:

# The fall guy is a low-ranking politico as possible.
# Political rank should be high enough to ensure outraged partisans that 'justice' has been done, that a sufficient price had been paid.
# Furthermore, the politico that falls must have been in a position of authority related to the scandal (Mike Brown was head of FEMA during the Katrina relief efforts (or lack thereof)).
# Most importantly, the key purpose of a fall guy, to protect the group from further inquiry, remains.

In politics, scandals can sometimes be resolved with simple statements of responsibility and atonement. When they cannot, then "heads must roll." In other words, parties must pay a price, often this comes with the resignation of a fall guy. If an advertising jingle were to sum it up, perhaps it would be "say it with "resignations"."

The fall guy also functions on the level of political consciousness. When a scandal erupts, it is not only the accused that suffer, but the whole of government. The scandal saturates media attention and grinds the machinery of government to a halt. So when the fall guy suffers his fate its purpose is not only to protect his political bosses, but also to help the country 'move forward' with its business. (Whether the advent of the 24 hour news cycle has increased the use of fall guys or not is an open question.)

With political consciousness, the fall guy and his demise also maintain the framework that consequences exist and that justice shall be meted out. But, if a single fall guy can absorb the punishment of many other guilty parties, then the justice is mostly symbolic. So perhaps a little justice is better than no justice at all.

This book, Scapegoats: Transferring Blame, by Tom Douglas, attempts to deal with the actual process of scapegoating and public life, the ritualisation of scapegoating, and related topics in an academic sense. [http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN041511019X&id=5bZRz31x3IcC]

Another book deals primarily with Iran-contra, but also with the public exorcising of the fall guy [http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN0822317389&id=NAEUpH2p9GQC&]

A curious example of the fall guy is Oliver North, who, perhaps more appropriately 'fell on his sword' and takes pride in that loyal act (Washington Post article above). In his case, the act may have functioned more as a ritual (symbolic) suicide than merely taking the rap. (The actual phrases 'fall guy' and 'fall on [your] sword' are used in this article, quite close to each other, and yet seem not to interact at all, [http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B0DE2D71E38F934A25754C0A961948260] .)

ee also

*The Fall Guy
*The First Year
*For a list of famous fall guys in American politics, from North, to Libby, to Fall, see this link: [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/16/AR2007031602676.html?nav=rss_print/outlook] or here (reprint): [http://www.honoluluadvertiser.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070321/OPINION03/703210358/1110/OPINION] [http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-1283(199022)65%3A2%3C193%3AOTOOP%3E2.0.CO%3B2-1]

For something on Teapot Dome:
*Teapot Dome

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • fall guy — ˈfall guy noun [countable] informal someone who is punished for someone else s mistakes: • Like many fall guys, he was a loyal manager who was hardly the only person to blame for his employer s troubles. * * * fall guy UK US noun [C] INFORMAL ►… …   Financial and business terms

  • fall guy — fall guys N COUNT If someone is the fall guy, they are blamed for something which they did not do or which is not their fault. [INFORMAL] He claims he was made the fall guy for the affair. Syn: scapegoat …   English dictionary

  • fall guy — n informal especially AmE 1.) someone who is punished for someone else s crime or mistake = ↑scapegoat ▪ Browne claims that the company was simply looking for a fall guy. 2.) someone who is easily tricked or made to seem stupid …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • fall guy — fall ,guy noun count INFORMAL someone who is blamed or punished for something bad that someone else has done: SCAPEGOAT …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • fall guy — fall′ guy n. Slang. 1) sts an easy victim 2) sts a scapegoat • Etymology: 1905–10, amer …   From formal English to slang

  • fall guy — [n] scapegoat chopping block, dupe, patsy, pigeon, sacrifice, sap, schmuck, stooge, sucker, victim, whipping boy; concept 412 …   New thesaurus

  • fall guy — ► NOUN informal ▪ a scapegoat …   English terms dictionary

  • fall guy — ☆ fall guy n. Slang a person made the victim, or left to face the consequences, of a scheme that has miscarried …   English World dictionary

  • fall guy — noun a person who is gullible and easy to take advantage of • Syn: ↑chump, ↑fool, ↑gull, ↑mark, ↑patsy, ↑sucker, ↑soft touch, ↑mug • Derivationally related forms: ↑ …   Useful english dictionary

  • fall guy — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms fall guy : singular fall guy plural fall guys informal someone who is blamed or punished for something bad that someone else has done …   English dictionary

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.