Q: In Grantchester, a detective series on British TV, a woman was recently asked, “Is that your husband or your fancy man?” The Brits seem to use “fancy” in ways that never caught on in America—to “fancy” someone, for example, or a “fancy dress ball.” Of course my Jewish grandmother used “fancy-schmancy” as a mild put-down.
A: For centuries, the word “fancy”—noun, verb, and adjective—has been associated with imagination, fantasy, and desire. And you’re right in thinking that in some of its senses “fancy” is more widely used today in Britain than in the US.
The verb in particular is used more broadly and more flexibly by British speakers. Some standard dictionaries label “fancy” as a British usage when it means to want (“Do you fancy fish and chips tonight?”), to like or have a crush on (“She obviously fancies him”), to favor (“What team do you fancy in the finals?”), or when used imperatively to express surprise (“Fancy her winning the lottery!”).
The adjective, too, is used differently. To the British “fancy dress” doesn’t mean formal evening wear; it means a costume, as for a masquerade ball. The linguist Lynne Murphy, on her blog Separated by a Common Language, passes along this anecdote from an article in the Spectator:
“There is a popular urban legend about a British couple in New York who attended a black tie gala dressed as a pair of pumpkins. Turns out they had misinterpreted the host’s instruction to ‘dress fancy,’ as an invitation for fancy dress.” The writer of the article, who’s Canadian, says she has “experienced the cultural flip side.” Invited to a “fancy dress party” in London, she arrived wearing a silk cocktail dress and heels, only to find that her fellow party-goers were got up as Nazis, drag queens, and tarts.
The phrase you heard in Grantchester, “fancy man,” has had many meanings in both varieties of English. We’ll get to those later. First, some etymological background.
When “fancy” entered English in the late 1400s, it was a contraction of “fantasy,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. The earlier noun, dating from around 1325, had occasionally appeared in abbreviated spellings (like “fantsy,” 1462).
“Fantasy” was borrowed from the Old French fantasie, which can be traced to phantasia, a word that in medieval Latin and Greek (ϕαντασία) had several meanings, including an appearance, a spectral apparition or phantom, and the faculty of imagining.
When the short form “fancy” was first recorded in writing (spelled “fansey”), it was a noun for a preference, a personal taste, an inclination, or a liking, the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1465 entry in a collection known as The Paston Letters and Papers: “I haue non fansey wyth soume of þe felechipp [the fellowship].”
The expression “to have no fancy with” is now obsolete, the dictionary says, but similar uses of the noun survive in phrases like “to have a fancy for,” “take a fancy to,” “catch the fancy of,” etc.
Around the same time, “fancy” was also used to mean something very different, “a supposition resting on no solid grounds” or “an arbitrary notion,” Oxford says. The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Compound of Alchymy (1471), by George Ripley: “To know the truth, and fancies to eschew.”
Over the next three hundred years, the noun acquired other meanings having to do with the human imagination—a whim or caprice (1579), a hallucination or delusion (1597), a mental image (1663), an invention (1665), or, collectively, connoisseurs—that is, fanciers—of a particular pastime (1735).
In the mid-1500s, “fancy” also came to mean love or an amorous inclination, a meaning that’s now obsolete. But the usage has survived in the phrase “fancy free” (1600), which originally meant free of any fond attachment, or not in love. (Today standard dictionaries also accept another meaning, carefree.)
The verb “fancy” didn’t come along—at least in writing—until the mid-1500s, and from the start it had two branches of meanings. One had to do with imagining, conceiving, or believing, with OED examples dating from 1551. The other had to do with liking or being fond of (that is, “taking a fancy to”), with examples dating from 1545. And as we said above, some standard dictionaries regard many of these usages as more British than American.
Finally we come to the adjective, which is widely used in both varieties of English. It developed in the mid-1600s, the OED says, as an attributive use of the noun, and it originally described an action resulting from a fancy, whim, or caprice.
“Fancy” in the decorative sense emerged in the 1700s, when the adjective came to mean “of a design varied according to the fancy,” Oxford says, or “ ‘fine, ornamental,’ in opposition to ‘plain.’ ”
So merchants used “fancy” to describe merchandise, foods, and apparel that were showier than ordinary staples. “Fancy” goods included millinery, candies, cakes, jewelry, stationery, wallpaper, haberdashery and other items designed with an eye to adornment rather than necessity.
In the 1800s, “fancy dogs,” “fancy pigeons,” and “fancy fish” meant animals deliberately bred to appeal to a certain fancy—that is, having particular ornamental characteristics. (Earlier, as we mentioned above, “the fancy” was a collective term for specialists or hobbyists of a particular bent, and phrases like “the dog fancy” are still used today.)
Finally we come to “fancy man,” a phrase that’s not often heard today. Since it first showed up in the early 19th century, it’s had several meanings, reputable and otherwise.
In Grantchester, set in a 1950s English village, it probably means “a male lover, not always adulterous,” but usually in a relationship with a “married or older woman” (definition from Green’s Dictionary of Slang).
In the earliest known use of the phrase, such a lover was a kept man. Here’s the definition: “FANCY MAN: A man kept by a lady for secret services” (the entry, cited in Green’s, is from Lexicon Balatronicum, an 1811 slang dictionary by Francis Grose).
Similarly, as early as 1819 the phrase “fancy woman” was used to describe a “kept mistress,” according to the OED.
Sometimes “fancy man” had a more corrupt meaning—a pimp. In this sense, the phrase is defined in Green’s as “a man who lives upon the earnings of a prostitute.”
Green’s earliest citation is from Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821), a fictional chronicle of urban low life that uses the term several times. In a typical passage, Egan describes one prostitute who accuses another of “seducing her fancy-man from her.” In a footnote to that passage, Egan discusses “men who exist entirely on the prostitution of women” and calls them “fancy-men.”
And the OED has this late 19th-century example: “They will bear from the ‘fancy-man’ any usage, however brutal” (the Spectator, Dec. 6, 1890).
However, “fancy man” also had a quite innocent meaning in the mid-19th century, simply “a man who is fancied” or “a sweetheart,” according to the dictionary.
Oxford’s earliest use in writing is from an 1834 novel, Frederick Marryat’s Jacob Faithful: “One day the sergeant was the fancy man, and the next day it was Tom.”
Finally, there’s the phrase your grandmother used, “fancy-schmancy,” a characteristic Yiddish construction. The OED describes it as a colloquial phrase, originating in the US, that means “extremely fancy, esp. in a pretentious or ostentatious way.”
This is the dictionary’s earliest example: “Now alluva sudden is fency-shmency with forks” (from Arthur Kober’s Thunder Over the Bronx, a 1935 collection of his stories from the New Yorker).
And here’s the most recent: “Currently, even fancy-schmancy multisport watches can only do so much” (from the July 2015 issue of the British magazine Forever Sports).
As the OED says, “schm-” is a combining element, borrowed from the Yiddish shm-, added to or replacing the first part of a word “so as to form a nonsense word.” This nonsense word then echoes the original word “to convey disparagement, dismissal, or derision.”
Oxford examples include “Crisis, schmisis!” (1929); “Child, schmild” (1963); “Oedipus, Schmoedipus!” (1969); and “Love-schmove!” (1996).
As we wrote in 2012, many scholars of Yiddish believe this rhyming-doublet pattern has Turkish roots and may date back as far as the 13th century.