Lexiculture: feisty

Kathryn Horner

Wayne State University

Cite as: Horner, Kathryn. 2016. Feisty. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 8. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/feisty.pdf.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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I’ve always had a special fondness for the word feisty because the word as an adjective in the current cultural context of which I am most familiar embodies all of which I consider myself to be; opinionated, aggressive, self-confident, and a myriad of other descriptors that pertain to (mostly) females.  As I set down to discover the origins of feisty I imagined the word having Germanic or Norse roots, with perhaps the “ty” ending being added within Old or Middle English times, because the oh-so-popular singer Feist doesn’t have the “ty”, therefore there must be a meaning or usage other than adjective form.  I set up my Google scholar search, and waited eagerly for the search bar to yield the results.  The page loaded and as I scanned a few sentences of each entry I was surprised at what they all had in common; the Germanic origin: “to fart”.  So when I’d been referring to myself as a “feisty woman” I was actually referring to myself (as my research led me to deduce) a “farting, small dog”.

Obviously the word has seen a semantic shift over the centuries, as most people do not use the word feist to refer to a small, dog[1] nor when a person “breaks wind” do they say, “I’ve just feisted”.  We’ve taken the word and shifted it according to the cultural times and as a descriptive word we can see where a feisty person perhaps does imitates a small, yappy dog.  If an individual thought about this rationally instead of being potentially insulted, we can see where the idea that a person who is aggressive, outgoing, loud, raucous, etc. has a lot in common with small lap dogs who tend to be those things.  Taking it further, if we again use a rational head to think how a small lap dog could become synonymous with the Germanic word fyst or fist, which has a basic meaning of “to fart or break wind” we only need take a moment and think of an encounter we may have had with a small dog and the correlation between “breaking wind” and the attitude, demeanor, and dare I say “wind-escapes” that the dog may have, we can see the synonymous nature of the two and it becomes understandable.

How and why did the word Germanic and Middle English word fist (fyst), which as we now know means “to break wind” shift to feist, meaning “a small lapdog”, to feisty which has been used since the 19th century in an adjective form to describe a person (usually a female) who bears resemblance to said antics of a feist?

 

Those feisty Germans: from fist (v.) to adj

I gave a rudimentary outline of the semantic shift above, however the individual words themselves need understanding in order for the question to be answered properly.

Like many words, there is usually a root word from the “parent”, and because of cross-cultural trade, wars, etc. there is the borrowing of words from one language to another, and feisty is not different.  As I stated above, the word has a Germanic origin in to fist, meaning “to fart or break wind”[2], and according to The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, “because fisting is attested as early as the year 1000, there was probably a verb fistan ‘to break wind’ in Old English” (175).  Now that a rough timeline of the word has been shown, context now becomes important.

As with many words that stem far back into time spelling is varied.  One could take every spelling of the word from Old English, to Middle English, to Norse, etc. and research the various cognates and contexts in which it was used to ascertain the meaning, however I’ve decided to settle on fist, feist, and feisty, those three being the most common amongst the sources I’ve found.

When I used the Google Ngram viewer to get a basic idea of the word’s usage in British English[3] I searched using all three: fist, feist, feisty.

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Google Ngram of fist, feist, and feisty 1600-2000

I chose to use such a large timeframe to start with because of my initial research into the word and the mention of its Germanic origins, but also the culture dictated a change in Old and Middle English, so it’s important to consider that time and quantify it.  One difficulty with using the time frame I did, however, is that speakers and writers of Old and Middle English did not have a standardized way of spelling; this lack of uniformity thusly challenged my ability to analyze early data, simply because when I clicked on books in time periods offered by Google, I found them to be 1) religious in nature (which makes sense given the time) 2) the usage being closer phonetically to feast or first and 3) illuminated manuscripts or copies of books from the 1600’s show the “f” as an “s”.  Nonetheless, we can see fist saw tremendous usage changes from 1600-1700, with peaks and valleys mostly between 1600-1650 and feisty and feist not even on the radar.

Next I did a Google Ngram search for the same three words but this time changing it to American English, to see if there was a change.  The few dictionaries I’d consulted stated that feist was a term that was seen in American English, and the “ty” ending was added on to the noun to change it to an adjective.[4]

The difference in the three words can be seen in the red line, which is used to represent feist.  The word that has been considered “American” is used more frequently in American English, giving rudimentary credence to the thought that feisty then and now, is  “American made”.

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From fist to feist: an American tale

Excerpt from “Our Southern Highlanders” by Horace Kephart (American, 1916)

2-8-3

The above is a passage from Horace Kephart’s book Our Southern Highlanders, which is part of a series of books he wrote about the rural peoples of the Appalachian Mountains.  What precedes this statement is a question posed to the character about why he was called “feisty” and what did it mean? The answer given to the young boy is that he is as feisty as a feist! That he has an excitable, assertive nature much like that of a small dog.  At the time of this writing feist had been an acceptable word to call a small to medium sized dog for over a century.  Now we must ask: “why?”

If you’ve ever been around a small dog, you know they have a very specific demeanor.  Most small dogs are bred for hunting, chasing small game, etc. but the main thing they are “wont to do” is to break wind.  A small dog breaking wind on your lap is something a person would notice, in fact a lot of people in the room would be able to notice it, so one can see how these small creatures were called fists or fisting hounds.

In his book The Complete Idiots Guide to Weird Word Origins, Paul McFedries explains that “when the word crossed the Atlantic to take up residence in the United States, the pronunciation had changed so that fist now rhymed with heist” (57).

So small dogs are now being called something analogous to “a fart”, and the New World-ers have done what they do well and changed the spelling and pronunciation, but how did the word itself transcribe into our modern lexicon as “an assertive, independent person”?

 

From farting to females: a woman’s worth

            I’ve already established feisty’s historical transformation in spelling and meaning, but when did it become a common, established adjective used to describe women? You don’t often hear a man being referred to as “feisty”, but a woman? Certainly.  When I was still in the beginning throes of my research and I saw that feisty had come from “breaking wind” and I considered how we use it now in relation to a woman, my first thought was “because women are so long-winded!” I was wrong.

Going back to Paul McFedries and his weird word origins book, the idea that a person who embodies the behavior of a small hound, is therefore considered to be feisty.  “The spiritedly aggressive nature of a feist was also a trait seen in humans, so by the end of the nineteenth century, folks were describing such people as feisty” (57).  Not to be outdone: “Since such dogs tend to be nervous and temperamental, feist gave rise to the adjective feisty, which was applied to lively, fidgety, or quarrelsome people.”[5] So there we have it.  Those who embody the spirit of a small, farting dog have the pleasured of being called feisty! The entries didn’t state a woman; they stated a person or people.  So how did the word end up being used in a mostly feminine context?

As I said in the beginning I tend to describe myself as feisty, and I don’t think it is a negative word to be associated with.  I see nothing wrong with being assertive, lively, or even quarrelsome (depending on the context, of course), but as I began this part of my research I found that the word’s usage, context, and whether or not it is demeaning is under current debate.  I cannot solve all the cultural and socio-linguistic questions of the universe, so I will have to leave that aspect out, but that debate is worth taking into consideration when looking at the Ngram viewer of the word and its usage, especially after 1970. 2-8-4

Google Ngram viewer timeline of feisty from 1900-2000 (American English)

I used the Google Ngram viewer to give myself a rough timeline of when the word became more involved in our vernacular.  I choose a smaller time window because my previous research showed that the word had entered the vernacular as being used to describe a person around 1895.  As the chart shows, the word has steady usage through the beginning of the 20th century, but it picks up in usage in the late 1960’s.  The 1960’s were a very historical point for America, specifically in relation to civil rights for women and minorities.  Taking our present day knowledge about the use of feisty and it being a word commonly used to describe an assertive woman, we can theorize about its usage becoming more popular because of the women’s movement.  Even someone with a rudimentary understanding of the 60’s can conjure up TIMES images of bra-burning feminists, and who better to embody the current context of the word feisty than those women?

For much of the 20th century women felt the need to be demure, respectful, yielding, quiet, and to play second fiddle to men both in the work place and at home.  Once the cultural landscaped shifted, and women were given a larger voice in political, social, and economic arenas the usage of feisty steadily grows.  We see that incline in the viewer: from 1970-2000 there is a continuous upsurge in usage and the variety of books that Google has within its corpus to support that this is a word that grew steadily after a very conflicting time in American society.

As I said above, feisty has become a word that is in a tussle between men and women as to whether it is appropriate or not.  Like some words, if one cultural group calls like members by it the word is acceptable; it is not acceptable for outsiders to use that word in relation to an insider, as that can be considered shameful and demeaning.  The modern-day sources and social media, (online magazines, Facebook, Instagram, etc.)  that I briefly looked at show that we are in the midst of this with feisty.  This new and emerging paradigm will be interesting to follow.

Feisty is a word that embodies and shows how cultural shifts take place amongst peoples.  From its humble origins as a word meaning to “break wind” to the current “a person who is aggressive, confident”, the word itself has undergone change in spelling, from a verb to adjective, as well as becoming slang within American society, as well as others around the world.  Those feisty Germans, Anglo-Saxons, Brits, and Americans have put their own spin on many words, but this word takes the proverbial cake.

[1] Online Etymology Dictionary

[2] Webster’s Dictionary

[3] I chose British English as a starting point because of the Germanic influence on the lexicon

[4] Webster’s Dictionary and OED both give dates of origin around 1806 with entry into said dictionaries being 1896.  Both have “American English”.

[5] The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories pg. 175

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