The Grammarphobia Blog

Feebee minded

Q: Regarding your recent post about abbreviations, I think there’s a trend to morph initialisms into acronyms. What comes to mind is “Fibbee” (for an FBI agent). True, it’s often not capitalized, but it may have some creds. Have you checked it out?

A: This morphing of initialisms into acronyms, as you put it, has been going on for quite some time, especially when it comes to government agents.

Jonathon Green, in his three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, writes that people have been finding creative ways to refer to an FBI agent since at least the early 1940s.

Although he doesn’t include “Fibbee” among the creations, he has citations for “Feeb,” “Feebee,” “Feebie,” and “Phoebe,” sometimes with an initial capital letter and sometimes all lowercase. (A bit of googling suggests that “Feeb” is the most popular of these followed by “Feebee.”)

The earliest published reference in Green’s Dictionary is from a 1942 letter from the literary theorist Kenneth Burke to the novelist Malcolm Cowley:

“A publisher told me that a faithful phoebe had been going the rounds, presumably begging to be told that you were a C.P. because you didn’t support Franco.”

And here’s a citation from a 1968 issue of  the Atlantic Monthly: “On their left stands a man in a very dark suit, with very dark tie, very dark glasses, very white shirt, and very bald head: a cop, Feebie, CIA, something like that.”

Finally, here’s one from Carl Hiaasen’s 1986 novel Tourist Season: “The clever Feebs used opaque envelopes.”

(The use of “feeb” for a feeble person is older, dating back to a 1910 Jack London story, “Told in the Drooling Ward.” Here’s the quote: “I’m an assistant, expert assistant. That’s going some for a feeb. Feeb?”)

Garland Cannon, writing in the summer 1989 issue of American Speech, refers to “Feebie” and similar terms as “variant forms” of initialisms.

Cannon notes that English speakers sometimes add affixes like -y or -ie, -er, -o to create slang or informal words. An affix, as you know, is a word element, like a prefix or suffix.

Of course these creative initialisms come with affixes and without. For example, “Beamer” (for BMW) and “Beeb” (for the BBC).

People seem to be especially creative in their spellings of variant forms for an FBI agent. In addition to the ones in Green’s, we’ve also seen the plural “Feebz.”

These FBI terms often seem to be used pejoratively. Candice Delong, in Special Agent: My Life on the Front Lines as a Woman in the FBI, writes of a police officer referring to FBI agents as “the fuckin’ feebs.”

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