Tag Archives: OED

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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On going ‘gingerly’

28 Feb
Zingiber

Image via Wikipedia

One of the things I worry about unduly is opening toilet doors.  It’s not a germ phobia, more a fear there’ll be someone in there and we’ll both end up incredibly embarrassed.

It occurred to me that the word for how I open toilet doors is ‘gingerly’ – which is a strange thing as ‘ginger’ is normally associated with spiciness, impact, or if you’re a redhead like me, a fiery temper.  The last thing we’d normally associated ‘ginger’ with is a delicacy of movement – surely it should mean to burst into a room, rather than approach it with trepidation?

As it turns out, ‘ginger’ and ‘gingerly’ have absolutely nothing in common. Ginger has quite well established linguistic roots – with many scholars arguing its roots back beyond Sanskrit to earlier Dravidian forms.  If you look at the Latin name for ‘ginger’, Zingiber officinale, you can clearly see the root of the root.  *ahem*.

But by contrast, ‘gingerly’ is described as ‘of obscure origin’ (real meaning = ‘we don’t really know how it ended up in the language’.)

The OED suggests that ‘ginger-‘ (as the first part of ‘gingerly’) may be related to words for ‘gentle’ or ‘gentlemanliness’, deriving perhaps from the Old French ‘gensor’.

This etymology would fit with the earliest usage of ‘gingerly’, which relate to an elegant style of dancing – “And I can daunce it gingerly” first appears in c.1520.  The word then moves from meaning ‘elegantly’ to meaning something more akin to ‘effiminately’ – as in this usage from 1583: “Their dansing minions, that minse it ful gingerlie‥tripping like gotes that an egge wold not brek vnder their feet.”

The sense of moving cautiously is also pretty early, here seen in 1534: “We staye and prolonge our goinge with a nyce or tendre and softe, delicate, or gingerly pace [L. tenero ac molli passu].”  This definition of gingerly has continued to the modern day – although I particularly love this usage in Robert Louis Stevenson from 1885 as it’s truly the definition brought to life: “[He] gingerly transported the explosive to the far end of the apartment.”

So it’s not a brilliantly clear-cut etymology, but as the OED argues, there’s no better alternative.  There is a Swedish dialect word gingla, gängla that means to totter, but it’s discounted firstly on account of the sounds, and secondly as it doesn’t carry the meaning of ‘elegantly’ as does the earliest usage of ‘gingerly’.

At least now I can console myself that I’m actually opening the toilet doors ‘elegantly’ 🙂