Words, Words, Words

I’ve been fascinated by etymologies ever since I first looked up a word in a dictionary to check the spelling and was puzzled to discover that in addition to its orthography and definition, there was also a strange-looking approximation of the pronunciation plus additional information with italicised abbreviations about what part of speech it was, cognate words in other languages, when it first appeared in use, and its etymology. Er, what?

It took me a while to sort out these italicised abbreviations, as I can’t have been more than about seven or eight at the time and we didn’t begin to learn to parse sentences at school until I was eleven (and that is something no longer done in English classes, unfortunately for the English language). I can recall my delight as the mists cleared and it began to make sense, especially the realisation of what ‘cognate’ meant, the sense that languages are related, that words have a history and are linked in many subtle ways with other words.

I was fortunate to be at school at a time when not only modern languages but also Latin and Ancient Greek were still being taught – and well taught in the school I attended – and to be given a respectable grounding in these languages.  My innate love of words was well nourished and encouraged by teachers who shared my passion, and I have continued to read dictionaries with inordinate pleasure all my life. Sound nerdy?

Sometimes, you can discover strange and interesting facts about words: ‘nice’ is the most commonly used example of how a word can change its meaning over years and centuries, from ‘not knowing’ to ’ignorant’ then ‘stupid’ to ‘discriminating’ and finally to ‘pleasant’. Here’s what my computer’s dictionary says about it:

ORIGIN Middle English (in the sense [stupid] ): from Old French, from Latin nescius ‘ignorant,’ from nescire ‘not know.’ Other early senses included [coy, reserved,] giving rise to [fastidious, scrupulous] : this led both to the sense [fine, subtle] (regarded by some as the “correct” sense), and to the main current senses.

USAGE Nice originally had a number of meanings, including ‘fine, subtle, discriminating’ ( : they are not very nice in regard to the company they keep); ‘refined in taste, hard to please, fastidious’ ( : for company so nice, the finest caterers would be engaged); and ‘precise, strict’ ( : she has a nice sense of decorum). The popular overuse of nice to mean ‘pleasant, agreeable, satisfactory’ has rendered the word trite: : we had a very nice time;: this is a nice room;: he’s a nice boy.

Recently I had cause to look up ‘insidious’ and found that, of course, it came from the Latin verb insidere meaning ‘to sit in’, but with a special twist. It refers to a particular kind of sit-in, in effect people loitering with intent, lying in wait for an unsuspecting victim to come by. This gave the noun insidiae meaning plot, trick or ambush, and the original sense of the adjective insidiosus was ‘cunning’ or ‘deceitful’. And the lovely sounding word ‘ambush’ itself relates to someone hiding in a wood, from the Old French embusche, from embuschier = to place (troops) in a wood (Frankish *busk gives us ‘bush’, the Germans ‘Busch’, Dutch ‘bos’, Italian ‘bosco’ and French ‘bois’).

But the one I really like is feisty. Many women are quite flattered when this epithet is used of them, but how would they feel if they knew that its original import was ‘malodorously flatulent’? It derives from the Middle English word ‘fyst’ or ‘fist’, which had nothing to do with curling up the hand ready to punch someone but referred to breaking wind (late ME also used the related word ‘fizzle’ to mean to break wind quietly). The term was used in a derogatory sense for smelly lapdogs, called ‘fist’ or ‘feist’ as a shortened version of ‘fisty cur’. It wasn’t always the lapdog that was guilty of the malodorous flatulence, but if their elderly lady owners blamed them, what could they do?

I love the image it conjures up for me of a circle of genteel ladies in the Cranford mould, sipping their tea, happily breaking wind whilst caressing their lapdogs and saying “Now, now, naughty little Poosie-Woosie! Such a feisty little darling!”

The Online Etymological Dictionary has this splendid entry:

1896, “aggressive, exuberant, touchy,” Amer.Eng., with -y (2) + feist “small dog,” earlier fice, fist (Amer.Eng., 1805); short for fysting curre “stinking cur,” attested from 1520s, from M.E. fysten, fisten “break wind” (mid-15c.); related to O.E. fisting “stink,” from P.Gmc. *fistiz- “a fart,” said to be from PIE *pezd- (see fart), but there are difficulties.

The 1811 slang dictionary defines fice as “a small windy escape backwards, more obvious to the nose than ears; frequently by old ladies charged on their lap-dogs.” Cf. also Dan. fise “to blow, to fart,” and obsolete English aske-fise, “fire-tender,” lit. “ash-blower” (early 15c.), from an unrecorded Norse source, used in M.E. for a kind of bellows, but originally “a term of reproach among northern nations for an unwarlike fellow who stayed at home in the chimney corner” [OED].

And the cowardy-custard in the chimney corner is hardly the embodiment of what we would nowadays call feisty. As Michael Caine would say, not many people know that!

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3 thoughts on “Words, Words, Words

  1. What a delightful essay!!! I shall never use the word feisty or nice without thinking of its history. You have peaked my curiosity to look up a few words myself this week. Perhaps I shall use this bit of information when I give the paper assignment in my classes. It is quite sad that we no longer teach the old languages. In the U.S. I find the arts, World history and geography a bit lacking also. Thanks for jogging a brain cell or two.

  2. I could write a book on weird etymologies (weird being one of them) – but it’s probably already been done many times, and the fun is in the research! Glad I piqued your curiosity (pique is another one to look up!) and please feel free to use whatever you like in your class – happy to be of service!

    • Thank you – I shall – I am going to look up pique when I get home tonight. Delightful to have a conversation with you and I look forward to the next posting. They are of such a variety and you always surprise me (us) with a new perspective or topic.

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