As many are describing it, last night’s debate between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Brooklyn, New York was “feisty.”
I’ve read others characterize the candidates’ sharp exchanges as a “dogfight” and full of “hot air,” but these descriptions are just as “feisty,” if we look to the surprising etymology of this word.
Into the woods
While the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests feisty in American English in 1896, an early usage in Horace Kephart’s 1913 book, Our Southern Highlanders, is telling: “’Feisty’… ‘means when a feller’s allers wigglin’ about, wantin’ ever’body to see him, like a kid when the preacher comes.’”
Kephart’s attention-seeking usage of feisty anticipates “fussy” and “fidgety,” an early meaning of fidgety we might owe to the Appalachian culture of the Smoky Mountains, where his novel is set. Today, the “lively” and “aggressive” feisty still expresses this excitability, though the word has since evolved to focus on a kind of readiness to fight – and, if my ears are any measure, is said of women more than men. In his slang lexicography, Jonathon Green indeed records feisty as 20th-century U.S. slang for a “flirtatious, showy, and unscrupulous woman,” which also, perhaps, calls back Kephart’s early usage.
Barking up the etymological tree
For the etymology of feisty, we need to travel farther south, where a feist named a “small dog used in hunting small game (such as squirrels),” as the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains. The United Kennel Club, among others, officially registers the treeing feist and mountain feist today.
Other variants of feist include fist, fice, fyce, and even foist, if we look to a 1770 reference by George Washington. In March of that year, George Washington wrote in his diary: “Countess a hound bitch after being confind got loose and was lined before it was discovered by my Water dog once and a small foist looking yellow cur twice.”
I find it reassuring to know that even America’s legendary first president couldn’t completely control his dogs.
Leashed up on feist, of course, was English’s prolific adjectival suffix, -y.
In spite of their size, small dogs like feists have big personalities. Their quick energy, sharp barks, and often skittish behavior indeed suggest the kind of lively, aggressive temperament we associate with feisty. And, returning to Kephart, feisty also evokes the squirmy restlessness, say, of a terrier less interested in one’s lap than what’s out the window.
As for the indie artist Feist, the moniker comes from her last name. Her first name is Leslie.
Send the dog out back
Now, feist takes its name from a fisting hound, dog, or cur, evidenced as early as the 1530s. Get your mind out of the gutter, but not completely: This fist, a verbal adjective, means “to break wind.”
The OED documents this fist in the 15th century, referring to the action – and aftermath of – flatulence. A fisting dog, then, was “stinky,” but not, as the record suggests, because it needed a bath.
Jonathon Green notes two historic explanations for why this flatulent fist became associated with dogs: Wentworth and Flexner’s American Slang Dictionary maintain “the dog was so named because one’s own smells could be blamed on it,” while in the 19th century it was suggested that “such dogs were not much bigger than a man’s fist.”
It’s unclear whether the “clenched hand” fist is actually related to “broken wind” fist, though the OED does cross-reference the former in the latter’s etymology.
For the deeper origins of fist, etymologists hypothesize an Old English verb *fistan and noun *fist, with widespread cognates in Germanic languages and a root in the Proto-Germanic *fistiz. Some philologists actually connect fist to its still-lingering counterpart fart through a root, *perd-, which is really just a Proto-Indo-European fart noise. (We can also thank this root for partridge, whose windy winging I’ve discussed at Oxford Dictionaries).
Like fart, I suspect fist is ultimately a Germanic onomatopoeic whoopee cushion, so to speak. But whatever origin we ultimately blame fist on, I can’t blame you for, er, leaving the room when the TV debates get too feisty this long and heated presidential campaign season.