Just what is a fangle? And why can it be only new?

14 Apr

I used the word ‘newfangled’ in conversation today.  It’s not a word I utter every day – but this headline from the Daily Telegraph caused the word to slip out my mouth.

Obviously for Telegraph readers, texting is relatively newfangled technology as the paper felt the need to make texting its headline today, in April 2011.   I did briefly wonder whether I’d travelled back in time to April 2001, when texting would have been sufficiently cutting-edge to make the front page of a national newspaper, but sadly my wrinkles and my waistline assured me it was indeed 2011.

But it got me thinking – why do we say ‘newfangled’?  We don’t ‘fangle’ anything.  We don’t even talk about ‘oldfangled’ (although as of today, I’m going to try and slip that into conversation).

The OED offers a wealth of fangles – newfangled (both adjective and noun), newfangled (verb), newfangled (adjective), newfangledness (noun), newfanglement (noun), newfangleness (noun), newfanglist (noun) and newfangly (adverb).

But it’s not just the sheer array of fangles that’s surprising – it’s the ages of them.  If you’d asked me where I thought ‘newfangled’ came from, I’d have said it sounded like the sort of word made up for an American Presidential election about 100 years ago.

I am completely wrong.  The OED records its first usage of newfangled in – get this – in 1300.

If þi loverd is neufangel, Ne be þou nout forþi outgangel Mid illore iwon.

In the 14th century, it also appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Gower’s Confession Amantis, which I was made to study for a whole term at university and still came out none the wiser!

The OED seems a little unclear on the etymology.  The ‘fang’ bit it gives as an obsolete meaning of ‘to grasp hold of’, and the ‘new’ bit tells you how modern the thing is of which you’re grasping hold.

The word is compared to the Middle Dutch – nieuvingel – or even more excitingly, the Faroese fangla, which means to catch hold of.  I can honestly say I’ve never come across a word in English that derives from Faroese,  and am quite sadly excited!

We used to use ‘newfangled’ to refer to the person who loved the latest fashion, but we now use it to mean ‘new’ or ‘the latest thing’.

I’ve also discovered that I’m not the first to coin ‘oldfangled’ – someone beat me to that by 214 years as it first appears in 1797!  The OED gives the delightful definition of ‘oldfangled’ as meaning: ‘characterized by adherence to what is old, old-fashioned.’

And fangle does also exist – although the dictionary suggests it is effectively a mistake.  Peoplewere used to ‘newfangled’ – so assumed there must be a ‘fangle’ to be new.  Fangled came to mean newly fashioned and a fangle a fad, although this mean seems to have died out of usage.  The latest usage is in 1881: “New fashions and fangles of dress, of manners, and of speech.”

For a word that’s 700 years young, ‘newfangled’ still speaks to human behaviour and the love of the latest.  But is the word sufficient on its own anymore?  Should we now be talking about ‘techfangled’ or even Applefangled?

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