FION.

I was listening to “Says You” (described here), and in the “guess the real definition” part the word was fion, which they pronounced FYE-on. The fake definitions involved subatomic particles, the real one was “A piece cut from a fish and used for bait.” After the show I looked it up in the OED, and sure enough, there it was, with that definition, but with no pronunciation or etymology and only a single citation: 1875 WILCOCKS Sea-Fisherm. 137 “This [mackerel] bait is termed a last, lask, float, or fion.” Naturally I turned to Google Books, and sure enough, there it was, except that it’s on page 126 of the 1884 fourth edition of The Sea-fisherman: Comprising the Chief Methods of Hook and Line Fishing in the British and Other Seas, and Remarks on Nets, Boats, and Boating, by James C. Wilcocks. The only other use Google turns up is on page 65 of The Rail and the Rod; Or, Tourist Angler’s Guide to Waters and Quarters Thirty Miles Around London, by John Greville Fennell, or (as the title page has it) Greville F. (Barnes): “This bait is known as a float, lask, last, fion, or mackerel bait in different localities.” Since the latter book is from 1867, I presume it’s Wilcocks’s source, since he lists the same four synonyms.
Now, that’s about as fringe as a piece of vocabulary can get. It’s even conceivable that it’s a misprint in The Rail and the Rod and was picked up trustingly by Greville F.; certainly without a hint of what locality it was from or how it was pronounced, it’s hard to take it very seriously. It seems to me a poor choice for the radio show, since there’s no way anyone could possibly have encountered it except by reading the OED (it’s not even in Webster’s Third), but I guess that depends on your philosophy of the game. Oddly, the alternate term last is not recorded in the OED, though lask is (but not from either of these books). Lexical items like this make you realize how amorphous the borders of both languages and dictionaries are; the OED’s apparent original ambition of including everything that ever occurred in print in English is surely now impossible, and I wonder if the current editors would choose to include fion now if it hadn’t been in the first edition.

Comments

  1. Charles Kingsley’s 1863 book The Water-Babies is certainly not obscure, but it does contain a similarly obscure word, peth-winds. This appears neither in the OED nor in the English Dialect Dictionary.
    David Crystal, when I asked him, told me that he believes peth is short for turpeth (which is in the OED and means the Indian jalap, Ipomoea turpethum, one of the family Convolvulaceae), and that the compound form is a general term for any member of that family, synonymous with bindweed or morning glory — note the morpheme BIND in the former.
    There are other interesting things in The Water-Babies, and whoever read it for the original OED reading program did a pisspoor job, missing all sorts of things. In particular, bloke appears in the sense of ‘fool’, ‘doofus’. I passed these and other things, mostly unusual spellings, on to the OED3 folks.

  2. michael farris says:

    “David Crystal, when I asked him, told me that he believes peth is short for turpeth”
    What a spoil sport. I would have assumed/hoped that peth-winds were derived from French pet with an h added for unknown reasons…

  3. everything that ever occurred in print in English
    Surely their mission never included made-up words like you find in Carroll, Joyce, and Seuss?

  4. (I mean not including words from Carroll et al. that have acquired a meaning and passed into general usage)

  5. I dunno, there are a lot of hapaxes in there. Their attitude seems to have been “if a reputable author wrote it, we’ll include it.” I don’t know if they would have considered Alice a reputable source, though.

  6. The word I’m familiar with for “A piece cut from a fish and used for bait” is flianque – defined in the Jèrriais-English Dictionary as “strip of mackerel (whiting, snipe) cut from flank for use as bait”. Digraph -li- represent yod, so the pronunciation is something like “fyonk”.
    Similarly the Guernsey cognate is fllonque (-ll- represents yod), defined in the Dictiounnaire Angllais-Guernésiais as “slice of mackerel tail used as bait and placed on piece of cork to enable fishermen to pierce hook in it”.
    Both words evidently derive from the vernacular words for flank. Might “fion” be a word originating in the fishing grounds around the Channel Islands (or perhaps off the Channel coasts of mainland Normandy)?

  7. Siganus Sutor says:

    Geraint Jennings: Might “fion” be a word originating in the fishing grounds around the Channel Islands (or perhaps off the Channel coasts of mainland Normandy)?
    Maybe it’s not specifically “bas-normand” but I’m pretty sure you might know what un fion* can be in nearby France… (Not to be – totally – confused with a troufion, a basic soldier.)
    * Nothing to do with any Prime Minister whatsoever.

  8. Might “fion” be a word originating in the fishing grounds around the Channel Islands (or perhaps off the Channel coasts of mainland Normandy)?
    It sure might, and I suggest you write the OED and suggest that. And if that’s the case, I’m guessing the pronunciation of fion is closer to FYON than FYE-on.

  9. Is there universal agreement on how to pronounce “prion”, the sort of protein that does, or perhaps does not, cause mad cow disease?

  10. marie-lucie says:

    “fion” en français?
    I don’t know how Siganus would use the word fion, but when I was a child, if one of us children had, for instance, got their mouth or cheek smeared with jam, my mother would say Viens que je te donne un coup de fion or as we got older Donne-toi un petit coup de fion sur la figure. I understood that it meant that she/we should wipe our faces, not thoroughly but only in the offending spot. I had never really thought of the meaning of the word fion by itself except for the vague idea that it meant the small piece of rag or towel used for the purpose.
    After reading this post, I looked up the word in my trusty Petit Robert dictionary, which defines un coup de fion not as a wiping gesture with a small piece of cloth but more generally as the act (concrete or abstract) of putting the finishing touches to one’s appearance or handiwork. The word is supposed to be from fignoler which means something like ‘to be meticulous in completing the slightest details of (one’s work)’. The origin of fignoler is not quite clear but it seems to include fin (‘end’, or ‘fine’). Perhaps fion and fin have the same origin (eg if fion is a dialectal form)? It seems to me that fignoler is more likely to derive from fin or fion than the opposite. Unless, of course, there is indeed a connection with the Anglo-Norman forms.

  11. Siganus Sutor says:

    Marie-Lucie: I had never really thought of the meaning of the word fion by itself except for the vague idea that it meant the small piece of rag or towel used for the purpose.
    Up to now I knew only one meaning for fion, and it wasn’t this one. And I would be very surprised if my mother differed from her son on this particular point. (I still remember the air of amusement/bemusement she had while hearing the name of the politician who is the current French PM.)
    Ahem, would I dare say what I understand by this word? (a word that could be of good use in Steve’s book). Let others do it: http://atilf.atilf.fr/dendien/scripts/tlfiv4/showps.exe?p=combi.htm;java=no; — fion No. 2 being the only one we, naughty we, seem to know in our bad brand of French.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    Siganus, thank you for the link. Obviously I was only familiar with fion 1, not fion 2. I doubt that my mother would have used the word if she (or my father) had known of the second meaning.
    Regarding the pronunciation, to me the word has one syllable only, so I was at first puzzled that anyone could confuse it with the name of M. Fillon which has two syllables. I certainly would not call any brand of French “bad” on account of this difference in pronunciation – in Southern France many people say lion or Lyon with two syllables also.

  13. To save others the trouble of clicking through, the less savory meaning of fion is the derrière. And on checking my Dictionary of Modern Colloquial French, I find the following entry:
    1 Arse-hole, anus. L’avoir dans le fion: To have been ‘had’, ‘conned’, to have been tricked. 2 Luck (the kind others do not think you deserve). Il a un de ces fions! He’s got the luck of the devil! 3 Avoir le fion pour (faire) quelque chose: To have the knack for something. 4 Brush, broom. Donner un coup de fion dans la taule: To give the place a bit of a clean. 5 Donner le coup de fion : To give the finishing touches to something.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    I see that #4 here (the count is not the same as in the site mentioned by Siganus) also interprets fion as a cleaning device. I am now inclined to think that this is wrong – in #4, #5 and in my own case (see above) the meaning is that of improving the looks of something, no matter how this is achieved – but you can see how the misunderstanding comes about as a result of un coup de fion, which describes a cleaning action – the word fion is interpreted as the instrument used for cleaning, as in un coup de balai, the action performed with a broom. This instrumental meaning derives from fion 1 in the site mentioned, while meaning #1 here corresponds to fion 2 in the site (the two words appear to be homonyms rather than a single word with multiple meanings as given in LH’s link).

  15. But if you thought it referred to the instrument until you looked it up, presumably many French speakers do as well; could it not be that the meaning in actual use has shifted, and the standard dictionaries have not caught up?

  16. Siganus Sutor says:

    Marie-Lucie: Regarding the pronunciation, to me the word has one syllable only, so I was at first puzzled that anyone could confuse it with the name of M. Fillon which has two syllables.
    It’s not that they were confused (for us too fion has just one syllable), but they were similar enough to get one close to the other. (You know how the mind can work sometimes…)
    Incidentally, I would be very much interested in knowing what percentage of today’s young French generation thinks fion isn’t always a… er… a dirty word.

  17. Siganus Sutor says:

    “today’s young generation in France” might be better…

  18. “Wiped his butt” is colloquial English for “defeated badly”, as is “finished off”. So perhaps buttwiping is the finishing-off of a cleanup (of a baby). And so on from there.

  19. My my my …
    When I saw the French /fjõ/ I thought it sounded awefully like the Danish word ‘fjong’ which in my vocabulary at least describes something as good or excellent. “Den er fjong!” (“It’s great!”) about a job well done, say.
    Imagine my surprise, when I found it was the same word!

  20. mollymooly says:

    If you want unnecessary words, today’s OED WOTD is pancake (as it’s Pancake Tuesday) which includes:
    pancakewards adv. Obs. nonce-wd. towards or for a pancake.
    1867 Cornhill Mag. Mar. 362 Her allowance would not admit of..a surreptitious egg, might her desire *pancakewards be never so strong.

  21. Delightful!

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