In a Word: An Airing Out of ‘Feisty’

Being called feisty today is veritable praise compared to what it would have meant to the people of Shakespeare’s time.

Dog hiding his face with his paws.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

The adjective feisty is often used to describe people (usually women) who show a lively aggressiveness in their demeanor, like one of those small, yappy dogs that seems to have endless energy and spunk. The comparison here isn’t an accident: feist has been a generic term for a small dog used for hunting game animals since the time of the American Revolution, and later it became a derisive term for a lapdog, both literal and metaphorical.

Feist came from the shortening of an earlier phrase fysting curre, “stinking cur.” We might think of a cur, if we think of it at all, as a low-bred or immoral man, but the term was originally a deprecatory term for a dog.

The fysting (or fisting) of fysting curre comes from the Middle English verb fysten (or fisten) “to break wind,” which is also where we get the word fizzle.

Etymologically, then, feisty traces back to the expulsion of malodorous intestinal gases.

While we often hold Shakespeare up as a matchless master of English composition, he was no stranger to either the common vernacular or bathroom humor. Thus we find, in Pericles, Prince of Tyre Act IV, Scene 5, the following outburst from Pericles’ daughter Marina:

To the choleric fisting of every rogue
Thy ear is liable, thy food is such
As hath been belch’d on by infected lungs.

Language changes, of course, and while we do find arguments to avoid feisty because of its sexist overtones, at least it’s divorced from its flatulent past.

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