Q: An article on the tech blog Engadget refers to Apple’s latest novelty as “the newfangled iPhone X.” I assume the adjective “newfangled” is somehow related to the noun “fang,” but I can’t for the life of me see a connection.
A: Yes, “newfangled” is indeed related to “fang,” but we have to go back to Anglo-Saxon days to find the ancestor that gave us both words.
The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the two terms ultimately come from fōn, an Old English verb meaning to capture. In early Old English, the verb was spelled feng.
The earliest citation for the verb in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as far back as 725:
“Hēo him eft hraþe andlēan forgeald / grimman grāpum, ond him tōgēanes fēng” (“She rose quickly and seized him tightly in her grim embrace”). We’ve expanded the OED excerpt, which describes Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother.
In the early 13th century, Chambers says, the Middle English words for “new” and “seized” came together to form the adjective neufangel, meaning fond of novelty (literally, seized by the new).
The first OED example is from the Proverbs of Hendyng, a collection of moral advice written around 1250. In the citation, neufangel is used in the sense of fickle—that is, fond of new lovers:
“If þi loverd is neufangel, / Ne be þou nout forþi outgangel” (“If thy husband is fond of new lovers, don’t therefore be thou fond of going out”).
In the late 15th century, the adjective added the “-ed” suffix that it has today. The first OED example is from a sermon, dated around 1496, by the Anglican Bishop John Alcock: “Boyes of fyfty yere of age are as newe fangled as ony yonge men be.”
A few decades later, the adjective took on the usual modern sense: “Newly or recently invented or existent; gratuitously or objectionably modern or different from what one is used to,” the dictionary says.
The first example given is from A Disputation of Purgatory, a 1531 polemic by the English Protestant writer John Frith: “Let vs se and examine more of this newfangled philosophye.”
(Frith, who questioned the belief in purgatory, was burned at the stake in 1533 after Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor, accused him of heresy. More, in turn, was beheaded in 1535.)
Interestingly, the noun “fang” didn’t refer to a sharp tooth when it showed up in the 14th century. It meant the act of seizing, embracing, or protecting. Not surprisingly, it’s derived from the Old English verb meaning to capture.
The first OED citation (from the Romance of Alexander, 1340-70) uses the noun in its protective sense: “In fang with my faire godis.”
In the mid-16th century, “fang” came to mean a canine tooth, especially one of “the teeth of dogs, wolves, or other animals remarkable for strength of jaw,” according to the dictionary.
The first Oxford citation is from The Decades of the Newe Worlde, Richard Eden’s 1551 translation of Latin writings by the Italian historian Peter Martyr d’Anghiera:
“Theyr teeth are very sharpe, and especially theyr fanges or dogge teeth.” We’ve expanded the excerpt, which refers to the teeth of iguanas.
If you’d like to read more, we had a post a few years ago that discusses “fangled” as well as “newfangled.” Yes, “fangled” was once a word, and Shakespeare used it!