Q: Sandra Boynton has a cartoon mug collection. One of my favorites depicts a snail declaiming its love: “Oh, inch by inches / Doth my love grow; / I feign would call thee / ‘My Escargot.’ ” My question: ought this not be “fain” instead of “feign”?
A: Yes, it should read “fain,” not “feign.”
The word “fain” here is an archaic adverb that means gladly or happily. The word “feign,” on the other hand, is a verb meaning to present falsely, to fabricate, or to pretend.
We like the poem, though, and would fain see Sandra Boynton fix the wording.
How, you may be wondering, did two words that look so different come to sound the same?
Interestingly, the word “fain” had a “g” sound in Old English, where it was spelled fægen or fægn, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But the “g” was dropped during the Middle English period (from the late 12th to late 15th centuries).
In this OED example from the epic poem Beowulf, believed to date from the early 700s, Beowulf and his comrades happily carried Grendel’s head after killing the ogre:
Ferdon forth thonon fethelastum ferhthum fægne. Modern English: “They headed away along the footpaths happy at heart.” (We changed the Old English letters eth and thorn to “th.”)
As for “feign,” the verb didn’t have a “g” when it entered English in the late 1200s. Here’s a “g”-less example from a 1297 history of England by Robert Gloucester: “Somme feynede a delay.”
So how did the “g” get there? The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains: “The introduction of g into the spelling of Middle English feinen was an imitation of the original French.”
The English verb was derived from feign-, an Old French stem of a verb meaning to pretend or shirk. The French verb was derived in turn from the Latin fingere (to make or shape.)
John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins points out that the “semantic progression from ‘make, shape’ to ‘reform or change fraudulently,’ and hence ‘pretend,’ had already begun in classical Latin times.”
The Latin verb fingere, Ayto says, has given English many other “pretend” words, including “effigy,” “fiction,” “figment,” and “feint.”
The Latin word also gave us the adjective, noun, and verb “faint.” When “faint” entered English sometime before 1300, it carried over the French meanings of pretended, simulated, lazy, shirking, and cowardly.
So in the 1300s someone said to faint was lazy or cowardly and pretending to pass out in order to shirk responsibility.
This sense is now considered obsolete, Ayto notes, except in expressions like “faint hearted” and “faint of heart.”
[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 5, 2023.]