By Anatoly Liberman
Both specialists and laymen are aware of Yiddish words that have become part of German and American slang. The presence of Yiddish words in British English is harder to detect. Below I will offer a hypothesis that will carry conviction to few (among other things, because I myself have relatively little trust in it). Yet the harm will be minimal: the word in question (fefnicute) has so little currency that only a professional etymologist can have an interest in it. But first an example of a solid etymology. In the eighties of the 19th century, the word oof “money” surfaced in England, was associated with “the gutter,” and some time later attracted the attention of philologically-minded people. As usual, all kinds of fanciful hypotheses were offered. Especially the compound oof-bird “money provider” misled the amateurs who took part in this fairy tale goose chase. It was suggested that oof is an illiterate pronunciation of French oef, with reference to the bird that lays golden eggs.
I sometimes feel sorry for those who did not read Gogol’s Dead Souls. The protagonist of the book Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov appears in a provincial town as a stranger enveloped in mystery, and the locals offer various conjecturers about who he really is. According to one story, he is Captain Kopeikin. The story is long and heart-breakingly sad. The audience listens to it with bated breath, but the captain has a wooden leg, while Chichikov’s extremities are all intact, so that the narrator is forced to concede defeat. Many silly hypotheses would have been nipped in the bud if their authors had heeded the fate of that narrator. Consider the following: the explanation “is to the effect that the term is a corruption of the name of the late William Hoof, the wealthy railway contractor, who died at Madeley House, Kensington, in 1855, leaving upward of half a million sterling.” A great improvement on that etymology is this: oof is from hoof, because it is the hoof of the mare that is indispensable to her expedition, as proved by the line from a song: “Money will make the mare go.” Even the great Walter W. Skeat contributed to this fruitless discussion; his etymology was, naturally, not so ridiculous.
Then Willoughby Maycock sent a letter to Notes and Queries, and the dispute was over (I retain the spelling of the original): “Oof is merely an abbreviation of ooftisch, a word in common use for the past twenty years or more [the letter was printed on October 21, 1893] among Houndsditch Hebrews of Teutonic origin. These gentlemen had so little confidence in one another at card-playing for money, that it was their practice to insist on the stakes being placed on the table—auf tische—whence ooftisch. It was introduced, so to speak, into society mainly by the facetious columns of the Sporting Times, but was not invented by that organ, as many—including Sir Charles Russell, in the Osborne trial—erroneously suppose.” Willoughby Maycock had a good deal to learn from our speech codes. Nor was his vicious reference to the Houndsditch Hebrews of Teutonic origin, them of little confidence, necessary, for on October 14 of the same year S.J.A.F., another regular contributor to Notes and Queries, almost guessed the answer: “I have known this word for quite thirteen years, if not longer. In Low German there is the slang word ooftisch, which also means ‘money.’ Hunting the oof-bird is quite a common phrase in some circles far removed from the gutter. Oofless I have also heard. Possibly oof is derived from Low German or Dutch patois.” So it turns out that oof is the first syllable of ooftisch, a Yiddish term for cash (down) on the nail. The OED accepted this etymology with a mild disclaimer.
Three notes. 1) Houndsditch is a street in the City of London. It got its unsavory name many centuries ago, but is now a respectable street (no ditch, no dead dogs in it). One should not conjure up a picture of distrustful Jews gathered in a slum and shouting ooftisch, even while playing for low stakes. 2) The Osborne trial (1891) made a sensation in England. In it Mrs. Osborne was accused by Mrs. Hargreave of having stolen her jewelry. Mrs. Osborne instituted a suit against Mrs. Hargreave for slander. Her counsel was Sir Charles Russell, one of the most famous lawyers of his time. In the middle of the proceedings, a letter was submitted proving that Mrs. Osborne had indeed stolen the precious objects. The word oof was used in the trial, and this is, most probably, the reason questions about its origin suddenly came up. (3) William Hoof is an authentic figure. He was a rich man, but oof has nothing to do with his name.
It is now my turn to become the hero of a story Captain-Kopeikin style. In Lancashire, the now obsolete or dead word fefnicute “a hypocrite; a mean, sneaking person” was recorded in the 19th century. The verb to fefnicute meant “to fawn, play the hypocrite; to speak fair to a person, but revile him to others.” A fefnicute “tells a fine tale to get hold of something.” The word may have originated in the Rochdale dialect. The few people who pondered the derivation of fefnicute referred to feff “to flatter, butter up; fawn, play the hypocrite” and feft “to persuade a person to do some action to his own harm and your advantage,” with the second element being acute. But without accounting for n, we will not get anywhere. The word had the variant faf(f)necute, feflicute, and even thefnicute, a possible indication of its etymological obscurity to the speakers Unless thefnicute can be written off as due to the substitution of initial th for f, it must owe its form to theft, because fefnicute was sometimes used as a vague derogatory term.
Now, while reading the section “On Language” in the newspaper Forward for July 31 2009 (articles in this section are anonymous, signed by “Philologos”), I came across the Yiddish verb fonfen “to speak as though one’s nose were stuffed,” related to the well-known noun fonfer. Philologos cited Leo Rosten’s book The Joys of Yiddish and reproduced the definitions of fonfer from it. This is what fonfer means: “a double-talker; a man who is lazy, slow, ‘goofs off’; one who does not deliver what he promises; a shady, petty deceiver; one who cheats; one who goes through the motions of a thing without intending to perform to his capacity or your proper expectations; a boaster, full of bravado; a specialist in hot air, baloney—a trumpeter of hollow promises.” Rosten’s glosses seem to be overspecified, for what we have is “a cheat; a dissembler; a boaster.” The match between a fonfer and a fefnicute is rather close.
Fefnicute is obviously a compound. I believe that it should be divided as fefn-i-cute. The attested spelling fefnecute suggests that we may be having a word like rag-a-muffin or scal-a-wag ~ scal-i-wag. Perhaps fefn– is a garbled echo of Yiddish fonfer. The second element makes one think of coot, which has been recorded in dialects with the variant cute. This bird name (the wild goose chase continues) is the mainstay of several phrases, such as bare (mad, crazy, lousy) as a cute. The coot is a kind of duck, and ducks and geese are supposed to be dumb; hence the uncomplimentary epithets in the simile. A connection with (a)cute is improbable, for both elements of such compounds are always nouns.
Two circumstances weaken my etymology. First, I had to fall back on metathesis (transposition of sounds): from fonf– to fefn– and the alternation e ~ o (fafnicute exists, whereas fofnicute does not; could Yiddish o have been taken for Engl. a, which later yielded e?). Second, I cannot explain why the word survived (or came into existence?) only in Lancashire. However, anti-Semitism was rampart in those parts (consider the once popular local war cry: “Christianity; no Jews,” so that Jew-cheat-a-fool as a term of abuse would have made sense there. Philologos states that the Yiddish noun continues as British slang fonfen “a con man’s spiel.” It did not show up in the editions of Partridge I have consulted, but there is probably no need to doubt the information. Thus, my hypothesis, despite the nf ~ fn problem receives a tiny boost. I notice that the rare American slang word shillaber “to shill; to decoy an accomplice, especially one posing as a customer to encourage buyers,” that is, a synonym of fonfen, also has a in the middle and may be an extended form of German Schieber “black marketeer” (see my book Word Origins, pp. 68-69). To be sure, this structural coincidence does not go far. Perhaps someone reads our blog in Manchester or Liverpool and will send us a comment. The Oxford Etymologist, having nothing else to do, has lost much sleep over the fortunes of fefnicute.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”