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In New York Times’ (August 13) article titled, “Summers of our discontent,” Maureen Dowd manifests her objection to the possible nomination of Larry Summers by President Obama by asking, “Does the fact that we’ve had no female Fed chairs and no female Treasury secretaries mean that Summers was right when he said women are less likely to have the kind of brains that would allow them to get top jobs requiring math skills? http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/14/opinion/dowd-summers-of-our-discontent.html?hp&_r=0Summers

And she asks;

“But the idea that it is somehow historically inevitable that the chairmanship of the Federal Reserve should go to Summers, that it belongs to him, that he would be an enthusiastic enforcer of bank regulation to protect the little guy? I have my doubts.”

Who is “the little guy”? Does it mean the weak, or small loan borrowers? Is it a single person or entity? Why is it in the singular form when it refers to guy, a countable noun - I mean, why it is 'the guy," not "the guys" when it indicates guys in a social group or class?

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This looks like a good question for the English Language Learners site. –  Matt Aug 15 '13 at 1:21
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2 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The big guy and the little guy are metaphorical ways of referring to the distinction between corporations or individuals with lots of political and/or economic power and individuals with little or no political and/or economic power. So yes, in this case it means the weak, or more precisely, people in the middle or lower classes that have less individual power—people that are more personally influenced by local economic conditions.

Neither the big guy nor the little guy is a single entity. Both are collective terms describing entire economic classes.

Grammatically, the terms are indeed countable. The plural forms, the big guys and the little guys, can be used almost interchangeably with their singular forms, although they are much less common.

On a side note, I had speculated that the big guy / little guy distinction might have arisen from Big Brother, a character in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it's been pointed out (see comments) that these terms predate the novel by at least several years.

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As @FumbleFingers points out, earlier usage, such as nothing for the little guy, no tax reduction for the little man from 1939 Retail Clerk's Association Meeting at books.google.com/… –  bib Aug 15 '13 at 11:41
    
@bib: Care must be taken with Google snippets, I think that is much later: the Defense Production Act, mentioned on the right hand side of the snippet, was enacted in 1950. –  Hugo Aug 15 '13 at 13:42
    
@Hugo: Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater! I still think it's vanishingly unlikely that Orwell would ever have used the word guy to mean man. And here's It is the fashion nowadays to champion the "little man" from 1936, which is essentially the same usage. –  FumbleFingers Aug 15 '13 at 14:29
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...also note that there are quite a few more pre-Orwell instances if you search for the plural form little guys. –  FumbleFingers Aug 15 '13 at 14:32
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There's no entry in the OED for little guy but there is for poor little guy:

U.S. colloq. the ordinary individual, the ‘man in the street’.

First uses:

[1863 C. Reade Hard Cash III. xiii. 270, I wouldn't speak to you in the street for fear of disgracing you; I am such a poor little guy to be addressing a gentleman like you.]

1955 Bridgeport (Connecticut) Sunday Post 14 Aug. a16/7 By loading down the audit forces with detail work and the package audit, less audits will be made, and then mostly to the poor little guy.

However, they do have an entry for little man:

The undistinguished and ordinary ‘man in the street’.

1933 E. Sutton tr. H. Fallada (title) Little man, what now?

1935 New Statesman 8 June 857/1 The old noli-me-tangere John Bull has disappeared, and his place has been taken by the all-enduring Little Man.

1936 ‘G. Orwell’ Keep Aspidistra Flying iii. 64 To turn into the typical little bowler-hatted sneak—Strube's ‘little man’.

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