The Grammarphobia Blog

Are there fangs in newfangled?

Q: The adjective “newfangled” suggests there must have been a not-so-new version, “fangled.” And if there was a “fangled,” surely there must have been an even older noun or verb, “fangle.” Is there also lurking in the etymological past a pair of fangs?

A: Yes, there are sharp teeth associated with “newfangled,” but the history of the word is more complicated than that, so let’s forget the fangs for the time being. We’ll get back to them later.

This adjective is probably a lot older than you think. “Newfangled” has been around since the late 1400s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It developed from an even earlier adjective, “newfangle,” which may have been recorded as early as 1250.

Originally, both “newfangle” and “newfangled” referred to people who were eager for novelty, though later both could refer to new and novel things.

 The OED says “newfangled” originally meant “very (esp. excessively or immoderately) fond of novelty or new things; keen to take up new fashions or ideas; easily carried away by whatever is new.”

It was first recorded in about 1496 in a book of sermons by Bishop John Alcock: “Boyes of fyfty yere of age are as newe fangled as ony yonge men be.”

The OED says this use of “newfangled” to describe novelty-loving people is “now rare.” The dictionary’s most recent citation is from Dorothy L. Sayers’s novel Clouds of Witness (1926):

“All these new-fangled doctors went out of their way to invent subconsciousness and kleptomania, and complexes and other fancy descriptions to explain away when people had done naughty things.”

In the mid- to late 1500s, the OED says, people began using “newfangled” to describe things, not people: something “newly or recently invented or existent,” as well as something “gratuitously or objectionably modern or different from what one is used to.”

It’s still used in those senses today.

Where did “newfangle” and the later “newfangled” come from? The source, according to Oxford, is an archaic Old English verb, “fang,” which was recorded as long ago as the year 855 and is still alive in some dialects of English.

Originally, to “fang” meant to grasp, seize, take, catch, attack, embrace, or simply to commence. But over the centuries it has had many associated meanings: to obtain, collect, get at, receive, earn, welcome, and others.

So etymologically, “newfangled” might be described as newly seized, newly begun, and so forth.

So where do the sharp teeth come in?

The verb “fang” gave rise to a noun, first recorded in 1016, meaning the thing caught or taken—the prey or the plunder. And it soon came to mean a capture or a catch, the OED says, and “also a tight grasp, a grip.”

The noun “fang” acquired another meaning in the mid-1500s: “a canine tooth; a tusk.” And the plural “fangs” was used generally to mean “the teeth of dogs, wolves, or other animals remarkable for strength of jaw.”

The connection is easy to imagine—from the verb that means to seize to the noun for prey and finally to the “fang” that means the predator’s tooth.

“Although the broad semantic connection between ‘seizing’ and ‘sharp canine teeth’ is clear,” John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “the precise mechanism behind the development is not known.”

At any rate, “newfangled” was in use well before “fang” meant an animal’s tooth, so there’s no direct line of descent though there is a connection.

But wait a minute. We haven’t discussed the word “fangled,” which you suspect must be in there somewhere.

Well, there was such an adjective. It was first recorded in 1587 and meant “characterized by crotchets or fopperies” (a “crotchet” is a whimsical notion).

But “fangled” came about in error, the OED says, through “a mistaken analysis of newfangled.” Writers in the 16th century erroneously assumed the existence of “fangle” as a noun and a verb, and consequently as an adjective, “fangled.”

The assumption was wrong of course, because “newfangled” is derived from the ancient verb “fang,” not from “fangle” and “fangled.”

The OED says “fangled” is obsolete now. It’s immortal, though, thanks to Shakespeare, one of those confused writers we mentioned.

We know he was familiar with “newfangled” because he used it three times in his plays and sonnets. And in Cymbeline, first produced in 1611, he too assumed there was a shorter adjective: “Be not, as is our fangled world, a garment / Nobler than that it covers.”

So if Shakespeare and his contemporaries could make that mistaken leap, perhaps it’s not surprising that you did too.

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