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Feisty

26 May 2015

It’s fair to say that some of the words and facts we tweet about are a little unusual. (Yes, take a bow, monkey-poop, we mean you.) 
 

But one of the most unusual we’ve posted in a long time was this nugget of etymological gold (lifted—shameless plug alert—from our new book), which we tweeted earlier this week:

 

We might have name-checked the Tudors in that tweet, but we’ll get to them in a moment. For now, this malodorous story starts with a tenth-century English monk named Ælfric of Eynsham, who as well as being abbot of Eynsham Abbey in Oxfordshire was also one of the most prolific writers of his day. Ælfric’s output included homilies, sermons, biographies of saints, biblical translations and biblical commentaries, as well as several scholarly works written for students of Latin. Among them was a vast bilingual glossary of Latin and English, which contains the earliest records of a whole host of English words—two of which, feorting and fysting, he defined as “breaking wind”.

 

Unsurprisingly, the Old English word feorting is the ancestor of the modern English farting, and it’s fair to say that its meaning has lingered on, unchanged, for the last thousand years. Fysting too has survived down into modern English, but unlike feorting it’s no longer found in its original sense—instead, it’s the ancestor of a handful of seemingly innocent English words, including our old friend feisty. So how did we get from a word for “a small windy escape backwards” (as the great Francis Grose defined it in 1785), to a word meaning “lively”, “aggressive”, and “courageous”? Well, the answer lies with those aforementioned Tudors—or rather, with their flatulent dogs.

 

As Old English wafted into Middle English, fyst was still being used as just another general word for—well, a whiffy crackaret. But by the mid-fifteenth century, fysting had come to be used particularly in reference to foul-smelling dogs, which it can only be presumed had a notable habit of letting one go. In fact, Tudor-period English is filled with so many references to “fysting hounds” and “foisting curs” (literally “farting dogs”) that they’ve earned themselves their own entries in some historical dictionaries.

 

Unlike Old English, of course, a lot of literature from the Tudor period still survives, and because of that we’ve even got some idea what kind of dogs these “foisting curs” were. Just take a look at this quote from De Canibus Britannicis, or Of English Dogges, a work by the sixteenth century English physician (and namesake of Caius College, Cambridge), John Caius:

 

Canis Meliteus … This puppitly and pleasantly curre, (which some frumpingly tearme fysteing hounds), serves ... no good vse except … to succour and strengthen quailing and quammning stomackes, to bewray bawdery and filthy abbominable leudnesse. 

 

We now know canis Meliteusis as the Maltese, a small white-haired lapdog seemingly once popular with Tudor women (not least because of its apparent ability to “quell filthy abominable lewdness”). But that’s not the Maltese’s only quirk: like a lot of diminutive dog breeds, it also has a gutsy, energetic character, and is quick to snappily defend what it sees as its own territory. 


And it’s this “feisty” nature—helped along by some inopportune Tudor flatulence—that brings us right up to date: by the mid-nineteenth century, feist had become just another nickname for any small dog, and it wasn’t long before the related adjective made its first appearance in print in 1896.

 

Now, please—someone open a window. 

 

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