Word History

The Surprisingly Physical History of 'Feisty'

It's traveled far from its bodily roots

What do we mean when we refer to someone as feisty? Although this word has been in use in English for a relatively short time (little over a century), it has already managed to accrue a small variety of meanings. The earliest uses of feisty include such senses as “fidgety,” “quarrelsome,” or “exuberantly frisky.” In modern parlance, the most common meaning attached to it is likely “having or showing a lively aggressiveness, spunky.”

One meaning we do not typically attach to feisty is “flatulent,” showing once again that words have a remarkable ability to leave behind their etymological roots, and move on to more respectable semantic pastures. For while feisty may now be among the adjectives of choice when describing a scrappy underdog sports team, it has distinctly earthy roots.

feisty word history puppies playing photo

Noah Webster would not approve of such japery.

Long before feisty was a word that anyone used, English had the word fist, which meant both “a breaking of wind, a foul smell,” and “to break wind.” This word had considerable currency from the 15th century onwards, as our forebears were very much in need of words dealing with flatulence.

There is nothynge that dullethe a mannes mynde so moche as a full bealy: rysynge and tournynge hyder and thyther, blowynge out wynde with baskynge fysting and fartynge.
— Ulrich von Hutten, De Morbo Gallico, 1533

The gaseous meanings of fist and fisting fell by the linguistic wayside, but as they did so gave rise to a related word, feist. In some contexts feist had a meaning quite similar to fist, although at least a few dictionaries (such as Joseph Wright’s 1900 English Dialect Dictionary) took pains to specify that it meant “a silent fart.”

Feist and fist were also used as a descriptor of dogs, referred to as fisting (or foisting) dogs or hounds. And while such terms were generally employed as epithets in the 16th and 17th centuries, by the 19th century in the American South feist (also spelled as fice or fyce) came to describe small hunting dogs. Perhaps influenced by the temperament exhibited by such animals, by the late 19th century feisty began to be used for non-flatulent descriptions of people.

Why some people try to be so “ficety.”
Mexico Weekly Ledger (Mexico, MO), 6 Sept. 1883

It is said that Harrison will appoint his “ficety” law partner, whom he elevated to Attorney General to the vacancy on the supreme bench.
Semi-Weekly Interior Journal (Stanford, KY), 24 May 1889

The people affirm by saying “I reckon,” and deny by saying, “I don’t guess,” and retain scores of classic but obsolete Saxon terms like feisty for impertinent, gorm for muss, buss for kiss, pack for carry, soon for early, holp for helped, drug for drugged, and Saxon plurals like beastes for beasts.
The Inter Ocean (Chicago, IL), 2 Aug. 1896

It should be stressed that there is little evidence that anyone still uses feist or feisty in the socially awkward senses given above; the former is now quite obsolete, and the latter is employed almost exclusively in the sense of “spunky.”

Iturbi Fresh and Feisty at 82
— (headline) The Los Angeles Times, 21 Apr. 1978

howled, "pin it back,"
in a voice feisty as when
you called the IV therapy
nurses vampires and
they were sure you'd
hang on for months.
— Lyn. Lifshin, In the Last Days You Said My Hair Scratched You (from Before It’s Light), 1999

I dare say Gloria Steinem likes to be described as "feisty". Okay, she is feisty, this book is feisty, if feisty is your bag you'll love this book.
— Lynn Barber, The Times (London, Eng.), 29 May 1994

We are not advocating a return to the carminative origins of feisty. After all, Noah Webster was a very serious man, not known for being overburdened with a sense of humor, and we would never sully his name with such juvenile antics. But we would like you to giggle a little each and every time you see this word used in future.



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