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And your little dog too

Another growl over the breakfast coffee and newspaper, this one over the discovery of the non-word fiesty in The Sun. What was meant, of course, was feisty. This error — not the first occurrence of its kind — is something that could be headed off if reporters would humble themselves to use the spell-check function.


The word feisty was once prohibited for use in The Sun by an editor who found it obnoxious. He said that it came from the German for a “small farting dog,” and, indeed, a look at references discovers that the word has affinities with the American feist or fice, small dog. Going back further, we find fysting cur, “stinking cur” from the Middle English fysten or fisten, “to break wind,” and the Danish fise for, as you might have guessed by now, “to fart.”

Rejecting the word on that ground may be taking etymology a bit too far, but I think there may be another reason to shy away from it. In some contexts, we are invited to take feisty to mean spirited or spunky. (We have sadly lost the fine old word doughty.) The local activist spearheading the fight against the new Wal-Mart or interstate interchange will almost invariably be described as feisty, especially if he or she is given to colorful, even earthy, language. Then salty comes into play.

But we may also be invited to see feisty as a euphemism for crackpot. Some of you may recollect feisty old Harry Truman, the octogenarian with all the cats who adamantly refused to leave his house below Mount St. Helens. Feisty he was, and feisty he was called, right up to and beyond the point at which his house, his cats and his person were obliterated by a storm of volcanic gases, ash and mud.

In my obituary, cranky will suffice.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:39 PM | | Comments (2)


best site

"Feisty" for "crackpot" brings to mind a couple of other quiet euphemisms in public discoures:
--"political newcomer" usually applies to a campaign first-timer who hasn't a prayer (someone likely to succeed is an "upstart");
--"tax dollars" almost invariably applies to money you don't want to spend.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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