[I] reported the most common meaning of the slang phrase — “scapegoat” — but then cast a line into the mainstream of native users of the American language with this fishhook on it: “What was the original fall? A prizefighter ‘taking a fall’? Lucifer’s ‘fall’ from paradise? A lover ‘falling for’ a mate? In other words, who was the original guy?”
First, one point of view from Jeffrey Gross in e-mail land: “A scapegoat is entirely innocent and used as a proxy for those who are really responsible. A fall guy is somewhat complicit but takes the blame for others.”
Now to the speculations. From a guy in England: “A penny for the Guy? Guy Fawkes, perhaps?” From Randall Speer of Reston, Va.: “the fall guy was the wrestler or boxer designated to ‘take the fall’ since ‘the fix was in.’ ” From Jernej Sekolec in Vienna: “Derived from the Latin locution for ‘falling on the sword,’ which in turn started with the Roman tradition that military commanders in the face of a bad defeat were expected to fall on their sword.”
Doesn't anyone read the Bible anymore?
"The battle raged around Saul, and some of the archers hit him, and he was severely wounded by the archers. Saul said to his arms-bearer, 'Draw your sword and run me through, so that the uncircumcised may not run me through and make sport of me.' But his arms bearer ... refused; whereupon Saul grasped the sword and fell upon it"
I Sam. 31:3-4