Fall guy

Fall guy is a colloquial phrase that refers to a person to whom blame is deliberately and falsely attributed in order to deflect blame from another party.


The origin of the term "fall guy" is unknown and contentious. Many sources place its origin in the early 20th century,[1] while some claim an earlier origin. In April 2007, William Safire promoted a search to unearth its origins.[2][3]

Discredited originsEdit

Teapot connectionEdit

One suggestion that has been made in popular culture is that the word's origin dates to the 1920s, during the administration of U.S. President Warren G. Harding (1921–1923), when Albert B. Fall, a U.S. Senator from New Mexico who served as Secretary of the Interior during Harding's years in office, became notorious for his involvement in the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal.[4][better source needed]

Political crossoverEdit

Legitimization occurred in the 1940s, primarily with the meaning of "take on work/responsibility". A paper on "Isolationism is not dead" 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".[citation needed] By 1950 in the context of unions and industrial society, the term referred to the low man on the totem pole, to whom the unpleasant tasks would be assigned, specifically that of filling out questionnaires.[citation needed]

By the 1950s and 1960s, "fall guy" came to mean public "whipping boy" in the abstract, metaphorical sense. In a 1960 paper called the "Politics of Pollution", Robert Bulard writes public officials, to deflect criticism over landfills, found a "fall guy", but they blamed abstract, faceless bodies: "the federal government, state governments and private disposal companies" rather than an individual.[5] Other abstract 'fall guys' included the railroad and bank capital.[citation needed] Use of the political "fall guy" is exemplified in the following three events:

  1. The Assassination of John F. Kennedy: Oswald was not commonly referred to as a "fall guy" until 1964 when Joachim Joesten used the term in his book title 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".[6]
  2. The Watergate Scandal: Former Attorney General John Mitchell claimed he was being set up as a "fall guy".[7] In Public Doublespeak: On Mistakes and Misjudgments Terence Moran uses the term in reference to a transcript of both Richard Nixon and Dean. He also cites a scene from The Maltese Falcon, in which Wilmer, the gunman is sold out.[8]
  3. Iran Contra Scandal: The term entered into public consciousness, if not quite into everyday parlance. Before this scandal Richard Safire seems to have kept the phrase alive.[9][10] The phrase's use increased after Iran-Contra in 1987; Representative Louis Stokes' used the phrase during a session of Congress in regard to Oliver North's steadfastness and loyalty during the hearings.[11]

Other usesEdit

In corporate managerial classes, by 1988 the "fall guy" was institutionalized as a principle, a component of what every good manager needed.[12]

A few examples of fall guys:[13]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Origin of "fall guy" - alt.usage.english | Google Groups". Retrieved 2013-03-01.
  2. ^ William Safire, "Sweet Spot", New York Times Magazine, 1 Apr 2007
  3. ^ William Safire, "Fall Guy", The New York Times Magazine, 29 Apr 2007
  4. ^ William Safire, "Fall Guy", The New York Times Magazine, 29 Apr 2007
  5. ^ Bullard, Robert D.; Beverly Hendrix Wright (1986). "The Politics of Pollution: Implications for the Black Community". Phylon. 47 (1): 71–78. doi:10.2307/274696. JSTOR 274696.
  6. ^ "Biography of Joachim Joesten". Karws.gso.uri.edu. Archived from the original on 2012-02-05. Retrieved 2013-03-01.
  7. ^ Press, United (1973-05-20). "MITCHELL REJECTS ROLE OF 'FALL GUY' - Has 'Clear Conscience' Says He Did Nothing Wrong 'Mentally 'or Morally' in the Watergate Scandal Mitchell Rejects 'Fall Guy' Role And Denies Guilt on Watergate". New York Times. Retrieved 2013-03-01.
  8. ^ Moran, Terence P. (1 January 1975). "Public Doublespeak: On Mistakes and Misjudgments". College English. 36 (7): 837–843. doi:10.2307/375189. JSTOR 375189.
  9. ^ Safire, William (16 May 1983). "ESSAY; TO PAY PAUL". NYTimes.com.
  10. ^ Safire, William (29 July 1985). "ESSAY; Help Wanted: Villain". NYTimes.com.
  11. ^ See official transcript, but also "The discourse of American civil society: A new proposal for cultural studies". Jeffrey C. Alexander and Philip Smith. Theory & Society: Vol 22, No 2, p 189.
  12. ^ Jackall, Robert (January 1988). Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers. Oxford University Press. p. 85. ISBN 0195060806.
  13. ^ Dry, Rachel (2007-03-18). "Put Out to Scapegoat Pasture". Washingtonpost.com. Retrieved 2013-03-01.

External linksEdit

  •   The dictionary definition of fall guy at Wiktionary