“Feisty”: you can blame it on the dog

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.

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This mountain feist is on the hunt. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Other variants of feist include fist, ficefyce, 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.

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What is the “quag” in “quagmire”?

Not too many people would say they love politicians. Late-night talk show hosts and word nerds, however, are notable exceptions, ever drawing from the endless well of political speech. Recently, quagmire has taken the political – and lexical – limelight, thanks especially to Bernie Sanders’ use of it at the first Democratic debate this past week in Las Vegas, as Ben Zimmer has analyzed over at Vocabulary.com.

Let’s step – cautiously – into the origin of quagmire: Its roots just may be hard to extricate.

Chattering Teeth_Ink_Ballpoint_Sharpie_On_Paper_doodle
There’s been a lot of ‘chatter’ on “quagmire,” and not just from the chattering classes. “Chattering Teeth.” Ink, ballpoint, and sharpie on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Quagmire

Quagmire has been stuck in English since 1566, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Back then, it referred to an “area of wet, boggy land that gives way under foot.” Thanks to how hard it can be to extricate oneself from a quagmire, its metaphorical extension is documented not long after in 1577.

Growing up, my dad loved characterizing my puerile indiscretions, if I’m to be generous, as having “mush for brains.” Perhaps he was just channeling his inner bard. Shakespeare used quagmire for something “soft, flabby, or yielding” (OED) when Talbot threatens in Henry IV of Frenchmen to “make a Quagmire of [their] mingled brains.”

Another term – and etymological clue – for quagmire is a “quaking bog,” for a bog’s ground quakes, or shakes, underfoot. Philologists like Walter Skeat, Ernest Weekly, Eric Partridge, and Ernest Klein see quagmire as nothing more than quakemire, a form of quagmire attested in the late 1500s. This makes quagmire a compound of quake and mire.

Quag is indeed a regional variant of quake, from the Old English cwacian and cweccan, which variously signified quaking, shaking, and trembling, sometimes of the teeth in fear, other times of weapons in fighting. Its ultimate origin is unknown. Many suggest that it is imitative. Can you hear quivering or shaking in quake?

Swamp things

As the OED offers, however, quag might be a variant of a different word: quab, a “marsh” or “bog.” Appearing in the early 1400s, this quab is reconstructed in the Old English *cwabba, which itself might just mean “to quake.” Like quake, the origin of *cwabba is unknown, but it also might be echoic. Here, the lends a bubbling and gurgling sound effect, fitting for a swamp. English has had other quabs: the word has named, if on an obscure and rare basis, certain kinds of fish as well as sea cucumbers. Historical linguistics note connections to slimy critters (e.g., toads) in other Indo-European languages, suggesting, as the OED does, a root in “something slimy, flabby, or quivering,” certainly not out of place in swamplands.

Speaking of swamplands, mire, meanwhile, is Scandinavian in origin, emerging in Middle English and related to the Old Norse mýrr, a “bog” or “swamp.” The word is cognate to English’s own moss. Both mire and moss are taken back to an Indo-European root for swampy ground and wet vegetation found there, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots explains.  The metaphorical mire is evidenced by the end of the 1300s.

Etymologically, we may not find terra firmwith quagmire, but, when it comes to the ‘muck’ of politics, this word works on so many levels.

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