The Grammarphobia Blog

Figs and hoots

Q: I’m writing fiction that takes place in 1928 New York City and I wonder if these expressions were used at that time: “She didn’t care a fig” … “She didn’t give a hoot.” Also, could you recommend a good book to consult for speaking styles in the 1920s,’30s,’40s, and ’50s?

A: Those two phrases are well within your fictional time frame. The expression “to care (or give) a fig” dates back to the early 1600s, and “to give (or care) a hoot” has been around since before World War I.

In case you’d like to know how figs and hoots got into these expressions, here’s some etymology.

Both nouns—“fig” and “hoot”—have long been used figuratively for something small and unimportant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So something that’s “not worth a fig (or a hoot),” or something that you “don’t care a fig (or a hoot) about,” is worthless or contemptible.

The noun “fig”—sometimes “a fig’s end”—was recorded in the sense of something unimportant as early as the mid-1400s.

The OED has this example from The Court of Love, an anonymous poem written about 1450: “A Figge for all her chastite!”

The phrase “not worth a fig” appears in 1600 in a collection of epigrams and satires by Samuel Rowlands: “All Beere in Europe is not worth a figge.”

The OED’s earliest written example of  “care a fig” is from a French-English dictionary published in 1632: “Not to care a figge for one, faire la figue à.”

The “give” version appeared soon afterward, in a Latin-English dictionary of 1634: “Fumi umbra non emerim,  I will not give a fig’s end for it.”

The fact that readers were seeing those “fig” phrases in dictionaries of the 1630s indicates that they were in common use well before that time.  

The “hoot” version came along centuries later, and there are many variations: “give/care/worth a hoot,” even “two hoots,” and “a hoot in hell.”

The noun “hoot” was used in the late 19th century to mean the smallest detail, according to the OED.

Oxford’s earliest example is from John Hanson Beadle’s travel narrative Western Wilds, and the Men Who Redeem Them (1878): “I got onto my reaper and banged down every hoot of it before Monday night.”

“Hoot” started popping up in what are now familiar colloquial expressions shortly after the turn of the century.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has the earliest example we know of. It’s from a letter Harry Truman wrote to his wife in 1912, collected in the book Dear Bess:

“I really do not care a hoot what you do with my letters so long as you write me.”

Random House also has this example from the novel Three Soldiers (1921), by John Dos Passos: “I didn’t give a hoot in hell what it cost.”

The OED quotes this passage from another novel that appeared a couple of years later, Ralph Delahaye Paine’s Comrades of the Rolling Ocean (1923): “I am glad of that even if he did tell me that as a supercargo I wasn’t worth a hoot in hades.”

Oxford has five subsequent examples that appeared in print before 1928—two from 1925, two from 1926, and one from 1927. So you can safely use both the “fig” and the “hoot” expressions in your fiction.

As for your final question, we recommend that you get yourself a good slang dictionary.

The three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang is pretty pricey, but you can get a used copy of Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English or Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (both good) online for $10 or $20. Try eBay too. And try to get the most recent edition that you can afford.

Cheaper slang dictionaries aren’t likely to be as authoritative or dependable.

Unfortunately, the really excellent Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang  was never finished. Only the first two volumes appeared, and the company’s dictionary division shut down just before the third volume was to be published.

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