A correspondent asked: “Why is it that there is an ‘oldfangled’ and a ‘newfangled’, but no ‘fangled’?” I did a little research and responded:

Excellent question! Newfangled was originally newfangle, which goes back to the thirteenth century and is based on the archaic verb fang, meaning ‘grasp, seize; take, receive.’ (The original form is still occasionally used: 1993 Vancouver Sun (Nexis) 12 June D14 “Updating ‘Helena’ to a 1925 setting—new signs, fewer horses, more of those newfangle automobiles.”) It originally meant ‘fond of novelty or new things; keen to take up new fashions or ideas; easily carried away by whatever is new’ but came to simply mean ‘Newly or recently invented or existent, novel; gratuitously or objectionably modern or different from what one is used to.’ Oldfangled is much later (first citation: 1797 in Catal. Prints: Polit. & Personal Satires (Brit. Mus.) VII. 354 “We’ll stitch up these old fangled Garments for our beloved brats”) and is simply a play on newfangled.
There is actually a verb (and noun) fangle, though not often used (e.g. 1755 CARTE Hist. Eng. IV. 136 “Such was their zeal for a new religion of their own fangling”); the OED says they “arose from a mistaken analysis of NEWFANGLED, later form of newfangle ‘eager for novelty’. As newfangled was said both of persons and of their actions or productions, it came to be diversely interpreted to mean either ‘characterized by new fashions or crotchets’ or ‘newly fashioned or fabricated’.”

I thought that was interesting enough to share with the assembled multitudes.


  1. I think that if people started slipping the verb into sentences it would work. People would assume that it was some regional dialect term.
    “Would you like me to fangle you up some breakfast”?
    We had to fangle a new part when we fixed the engine”.

  2. Yes, and I’d also like to revive fang, since we need all the irregular verbs we can get; we just have to settle on a past tense (feng or fong?) and past participle (fangen or fongen?).

  3. (feng or fong?)
    “fing”, like the Germans do it, whose verb “fang” is.

  4. No, no, it’s our verb too, and the forms I quoted are the native English forms. We don’t need to borrow no furrin irregularities.

  5. To be carefully distinguished from the Scots to “fankle”, implying to perform an act of incompetence or clumsiness, as when someone tangles a rope. “Unfankle” is used too: it’s what small boys need to do to their shoe-laces.

  6. “The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down”
    — Wallace Stevens

  7. Thank you for sharing the origin of this interesting word. Yes, a verb “to fangle” sounds good (I am not sure about “to fang”, but in any case, it is up to native speakers to decide). However, “to fangle” calls to mind “to wangle” and “to finagle” – both of which have negative overtones, especially the second one (any info on the origin of those words?).
    Re your quotation from the Vancouver Sun in 1993 (that is, I suppose, from Vancouver, British Columbia), it could just be a reflection of a d-less pronunciation (as in “old fashion” instead of “old-fashioned”) rather than a conscious archaism. The final d tends to disappear with such adjectives because it often finds itself between consonants when it is not at the end of a sentence as indeed also in “ol(d) fashion..” and “Ole Man River”. In cases where the corresponding noun exists (like “fashion”) and is much more common than the adjective or (here) participle (“fashioned”), it seems especially likely that hearers will interpret the 2-adjective compound (“old + fashioned”) as the sequence adjective – noun (“old – fashion”).
    I wonder how prevalent this deletion is in the English-speaking world. Certainly, deletion of a consonant in the middle of a cluster is extremely common in the history of languages, especially when some or all of the consonants are articulated more or less in the same place, as are t/d, l, n and often s. For instance, in North America many people pronounce a word like “guests” as “guesss” (I mean an extra-long s sound). This used to be restricted to a t between s’s, but if seems to be spreading to k: for instance I often hear (on Canadian radio) “risks” as “risss” and just this morning, “masks” as “masss”. This from people whose English is otherwise very standard. Does this ring a bell with people from other areas of the world?

  8. Ian Myles Slater says

    The successful re-introduction of “Fangle” as a verb will require some decision on its principal parts, as the original ones are unlikely to be acceptable.
    In Old English, as a Type Seven Strong Verb, they were (ge)fon, feng, fengon, (ge)fangen (long ‘o’ in fon, long ‘e’ in feng, fengon). This hasn’t left a model in current use.
    (Students of Old English will recall the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle accession formula of “her feng to rice,” and how it should NOT be translated “Here [i.e., at this time] he seized power,” even if circumstances suggest that would be a fair assessment in particular cases.)
    By the fourteenth century, “Fonge” seems to have become a prevailing form (and compare the Old Norse cognate, Fanga, which would have been in use in some regions).
    And, yes, the modern noun Fang (“gripping” tooth, sixteenth century) is related.

  9. This is the type of question I would ask, though I didn’t ask it. 🙂

  10. The Scots always screw everything up.

  11. It looks as though a modern (partial) analogous verb is hang, which, like be, is a fusion of three verbs: (1) hôn, hêng, hêngon, gehangen, OE transitive; (2) hangian, OE intransitive; and (3) hengja, ON transitive. So by this example one could argue the creation of Modern English fang, fung, fung.

  12. (principal parts of “fangle”)
    Reviving “fang” might require rethinking, but not “fangle” – a derivative does not have to reproduce the morphology of its root. As far as I know, English verbs in -ngle or -nkle do not change their inner vowel, although vowel change is typical for verbs in -ng or -nk as in sing/sang/sung etc (even though not all of them do).
    Could “fangle” and “fankle” be originally variants the same word? the meaning of “fankle” seems similar to that of “tangle” though perhaps the connotation is not quite as messy – knots or other complicated arrangements which need to be undone – but similarly “newfangled” is not just “new” but (it seems to me) has a connotation of “weird contraption or bizarre tangle of ideas, the product of a crazy twisted brain”.

  13. My vote is for fong over feng, as it seems at least a bit more plausible for Modern English. Fongen and fangen are both tempting; can we perhaps have them as free variants?

  14. Yes, I must reluctantly give up the idea of feng, which is completely contrary to modern past-tense models, so let’s go with fang, fong, fongen, with fangen as a quaint/folksy alternative. I look forward to snide remarks directed at people who say “I’ve already fangen it”: “I think, my good man, you mean ‘fongen’!”
    And of course marie-lucie is right that fangle doesn’t take irregular forms.

  15. Feng sounds too goddamn Chinese. “Wo yijing fengle ba!

  16. My impression of old- and newfangled has been that they must have been coined by scriptwriters of the Beverly Hillbillies, or some such. Nice to learn that they each have a respectable history.
    Growing up in Holland I always liked that the Dutch word for jail, “gevangenis” was derived from the verb “vangen” — to catch.

  17. A happy excuse to wallow once more in the final stanza of one of my all-time fave poems (“They flee from me…” by Sir Thomas Wyatt, died 1542)
    It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
    But all is turned, thorough my gentleness,
    Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
    And I have leave to go of her goodness,
    And she also to use newfangleness.
    But since that I so kindly am served:
    I would fain know what she hath deserved.

  18. That’s one of my favorites as well.

  19. Ian Myles Slater says

    “a derivative does not have to reproduce the morphology of its root”
    Yes, “fangle” doesn’t have to reproduce anything in the past history of the word.
    But those making the attempt to bring into more common use may want to decide on whether to treat is as still being a Strong Verb (“irregular” to most moderns), or a Weak Verb (the fate of a great many survivors). Or to provide forms from both categories, which is sure to infuriate some people, but might be more successful at getting it into circulation.
    I suspect that reviving “fon/feng/fang” itself in anything like its original meaning is unlikely to succeed. From time to time I’ve mentioned it as a “lost verb,” and nearly everyone has immediately responded that, obviously, it must mean “bite,” not “seize.” (The exceptions mainly being fellow-students, of course.)

  20. Googling neufangen, neugefangen, neugefangene gives a few hits on German pages.

  21. I suspect that reviving “fon/feng/fang” itself in anything like its original meaning is unlikely to succeed.
    Well, yes. But a man can dream.

  22. But I think that “fangle” can be fangled back into existence.

  23. Ian Myles Slater: past tense for “fangle”
    Try this experiment in linguistic productivity (not my invention but I have used something like it in linguistics classes): invent a new verb, for instance “sping”, and try it among your friends: ask them to complete a sentence like: “I am learning to sping – yesterday I ______ for two hours” — chances are most of them will say “spang” or “spung” rather than “spinged”. Try it also with “spingle” or “spinkle” – “yesterday I spankle” is unlikely to be said as the form sounds like a present tense form – the past form of “spinkle” will be “spinkled”. Similarly for “fangle(d)”, especially since verbs with the “a” vowel rarely change it in Modern English (which is why “feng” or “fong” as the past of “fang” is unlikely to succeed).

  24. Siganus Sutor says

    Marie-Lucie : « Try this experiment in linguistic productivity (not my invention but I have used something like it in linguistics classes): invent a new verb ».
    Invented or not? Regular or not?
    A Martian speaking through the mouth of the writer who told the story of his life on Earth is said to have brought a new verb to this planet: to grok. It has even made its way to the Merriam-Webster dictionary — —, which can therefore boast to host some Martian vocabulary. Though alien, it looks like a regular verb. But as scholars versed in Martian languages have become pretty scarce these days, who would know for sure?

  25. (new English verbs)
    (The experiment I suggested above should be tried with people who have not studied linguistics, so that they answer spontaneously without being aware of why they do it).
    Existing English verbs which form their past tense by changing their inner vowel all have a basic structure CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant – in sound, not necessarily in letters). New verbs of whatever origin (invented or adopted) are likely to follow this pattern only if they have that same structure, serving as a model – for instance “sping” is similar to “spin” and “sing”, both of which change their vowel (of course not all verbs of this type do the same thing, which is why the ones that do are consider irregular, and why not everyone in the experiment will change the vowel).
    The verb “grok” could conceivably form its past tense with a vowel change, but this is unlikely because other verbs of the general structure CoC generally do not (for instance “knock” has “knocked”, not “knick” or “knuck”, so the past tense of “grok” would be “grokked” in English, regardless of what it could be in Martian. (Interesting how the Martian verb has such a typically English structure! add a purely conventional c before the k – “grock” – and you would never know that the word was from another planet).
    New verbs of any other type will follow the commonest pattern of adding -(e)d.

  26. As my comment seems to have been erased together with the spams… (Or maybe the question was really too stupid…) >> A stupid question: to refer to the infinitive form of a verb in English, why do we have to say “to [something]”? Why not speak of the verb “eat”, “drink”, “fangle” instead of “to eat”, “to drink, “to fangle”?

  27. tickingclock says

    Siganus Suter: I’ll try answering your question with my meagre knowledge of Old and Middle English — finally, taking History of the English Language as an elective course becomes useful!
    In modern English (ModE), note that we actually have two types of infinitives: the to-infinitive (e.g., I wanted him to help), and the bare infinitive (e.g., I will help you.).
    The bare infinitive derives from the Old English bare infinitive, and the to-infinitive derives from the Old English inflected infinitive. In contrast to modern English, where the to-infinitive is considered to be the ‘default,’ the bare infinitive is the basic form in OE.
    The inflected infinitive in Old English was formed by taking the verb, forming a noun from it (e.g., help -> helping), and adding the preposition to in front of the noun. You can see where the modern form comes from.
    Around the period of Early Modern English — from 1500 to 1700 — the bare infinitive became restricted in its usage, and instead, the to-infinitive began to be used more frequently; now it is used more generally than the bare infinitive. Modern usage of bare infinitives are now only used with modal auxiliaries (e.g., “He should leave“), with verbs of perception (e.g., “I saw it happen“), and with verbs of causation (“I let her eat“).
    Hope you found this helpful!

  28. Thanks, tickingclock! I knew if I waited someone would come along and save me the trouble of actually researching it…

  29. (the bare infinitive) Yes, tickingclock, this is a neat summary.
    One place where bare infinitives are sometimes used for quotation or definition is in some works of linguistics. Read an article meant for specialists only, for instance about a Native American language, and quite often you will find verbs quoted without “to”, as in “word X” = “eat”. This is fine where the English word is not ambiguous, as with “eat”, but it becomes a problem when the single word can also be a noun or something else, as in “drink” or “fall” or “like”. In that case the fact that the word is a verb may be understood from the context (e.g. if the article is about verbs), but in a word-list or dictionary the addition of “to” is indispensable, since the translation will be quite different according to the specific status of the English word. Sometimes you end up with some words listed like “eat” and others like “drink (to)” as opposed to “drink (a)”, and this mix is awkward – better use “to” for all the verbs.

  30. Siganus Sutor says

    Tickingclock, thank you very much for your answer. However, I’m afraid that if to explain is to understand, to read is not necessarily to memorise — not even grasp the meaning, sometimes…
    So, if I can try to put it in my own words (the words of a lay person), in the beginning English didn’t have this particular preposition — to — to mark the infinitive. It had instead, besides a “plain” (invariable?) infinitive, a variable (?) infinitive that was used to form (mostly or always?) nouns. (Is this particular noun what is then called a “déverbal” in French? (“verbal noun” in English?) e.g. “le boire et le manger”, or “portage” from the verb “porter”.) And to this noun the preposition to was later added to form the “modern” inflected form of the infinitive?
    If by any luck I managed not to be too wrong so far, I’m afraid I would have a few more questions… (After all, why stop here?)
    1. Does this mean that, at some point in time, there were English nouns such as “eat”, “can”, “seem”, “get”, etc.?
    2. Why the preposition to? Does it have a specific meaning in this case? Why not at, by, on or from per example?

  31. Siganus Sutor says

    Marie-Lucie : « Sometimes you end up with some words listed like “eat” and others like “drink (to)” as opposed to “drink (a)”, and this mix is awkward – better use “to” for all the verbs. »
    It may indeed be better to use to for all the verbs, but I believe nonetheless that homophonous or homographic words are not uncommon in quite an array of languages. If in most cases we manage to sort out — more or less easily* — which is which, then it shouldn’t be an impossible task to do the same with “untoed” verbs…
    Incidentally, are there other languages that use an extra word to mark the infinitive form of the verb? I know of no other than English… but it is true I don’t know many languages…
    * Sometimes words don’t even need to be perfectly homophonous for people to get mixed up, like in mondegreens
    for instance — a phenomenon that can even take place from one language to the other, like in this example, apparently: “a Russian joke in which the song “Can’t Buy Me Love” was announced as “кинь бабе лом” (IPA kinʲ babʲɛ lom), which roughly translates as “Throw a crowbar to the woman”.” (Those speaking Russian could probably confirm this, or refute it.)

  32. Chris Jones says

    A few words on “Fangle” and “Finagle”.
    Many towns in Northern England have a “Finkle Street”. I have (only once, I think) seen an explanation of this as “bent or crooked”. A working hypothess might be that finagle and finkle are basically the same word, meaning roughly to “sidestep”. In the case of “Finkle”: literally. In the case of the modern use of “Finagle”, mtaphorically (to succeed by other than straightforward means). Whether “fangle” is linked, who knows ? But it makes me think of a blacksmith’s shop (even the sound) where things are made by hitting soft hot iron until it bends. “New-fangled” = “newly bent” = “newly made”.

  33. Siganus Sutor says

    New comments on FANGLES, OLD AND NEW?
    “Ah, maybe someone has been kind enough to answer my metaphysical quest about the preposition to…”
    Alas it was just about mundane matters instead: ‘basketball betting picks’, ‘dirt cheap airline tickets’ and the like.

  34. “Need brooks no delay, yet late is better than never.”

    Siganus-2006, here’s the OED2 on the use of to before the infinitive:

    Old English, like the other West Germanic languages, had a dative form of the [infinitive] or a closely-related noun, which in Old English ended in -anne, -enne, in Middle English reduced successively to -ene, -en, -e, and was thus at length levelled with the simple infinitive, and with it reduced to the uninflected verb-stem. This dative form was always preceded or ‘governed’ by the preposition ‘to’.

    […] Originally, to before the dative infinitive had the same meaning and use as before ordinary substantives, i.e. it expressed motion, direction, inclination, purpose, etc., toward the act or condition expressed by the infinitive; as in ‘he came to help (i.e. to the help of) his friends’, ‘he went to stay there’, ‘he prepared to depart (i.e. for departure)’, ‘it tends to melt’, ‘he proceeded to speak’, ‘looking to receive something’. But in process of time this obvious sense of the preposition became weakened and generalized, so that tó became at last the ordinary link expressing any prepositional relation in which an infinitive stands to a preceding verb, adjective, or substantive.

    And so the to-infinitive almost completely displaced the plain to-less infinitive, with a few exceptions:

    The simple infinitive, without to, remains: 1. after the auxiliaries of tense, mood, periphrasis, shall, will; may, can; do; and the quasi-auxiliaries, must, (and sometimes) need, dare: 2. after some verbs of causing, etc.; make, bid, let, have; 3. after some verbs of perception, see, hear, feel, and some tenses of know, observe, notice, perceive, etc.; 4. after had liefer, rather, better, sooner, as lief, as soon, as good, as well, etc.

    Cases 2-4 are rather exceptional.

    As for fang, if I follow the OED correctly, the form fang was an adoption of the participial stem into the present tense, which it claims has happened independently in the other Germanic languages. By late ME and EModE, fang had become weak, giving us fang, fanged in hypothetical current ModE. The OED also notes the verb surviving in the 19C English of Cornwall, and gives the examples “Ded’st fang [earn] any money?” and “I don’t fang to [grasp] your notions”; likewise in Somerset “When the paa’sn come there wad-n nobody vor to vang to un [sponsor him].”

  35. And to answer Sig’s question “are there other languages that use an extra word to mark the infinitive form of the verb?”: yes, there are. The first that comes to mind is Romanian, which uses a as an infinitive marker: a face ‘to do.’ You can read all about it (as well as much else) in Prepositional Infinitives in Romance: A Usage-Based Approach to Syntactic Change, by Kim Schulte (chap. 6 is on Romanian).

  36. David Marjanović says

    Originally, to before the dative infinitive had the same meaning and use as before ordinary substantives, i.e. it expressed motion, direction, inclination, purpose, etc., toward the act or condition expressed by the infinitive; as in ‘he came to help (i.e. to the help of) his friends’, ‘he went to stay there’, ‘he prepared to depart (i.e. for departure)’, ‘it tends to melt’, ‘he proceeded to speak’, ‘looking to receive something’.

    These, very roughly speaking, are the situations where my dialect retains this dative – expressed not on the infinitive itself, but on the specially inserted article (which merges to “to”, yielding zum).

    In other situations where Standard German puts “to” in front of an infinitive, like “in order to” constructions or following “without”, my dialect avoids the infinitive altogether, with surprisingly Balkan-like results.

  37. David Marjanović says

    Oh, it’s Class VII! That explains a few things, like the German passé simple fing (fangen – fing – gefangen).

    On top of that, it used to have a Verner alternation, with *x in the present tense. The expected *fanx- became *fāx- by Proto-Germanic, explaining the OHG fāhan and the OE fōn.

  38. Trond Engen says

    Norwegian has a doublet and a split: a weak verb fange “catch” and a strong verb “get”. Nynorsk also has the archaic infinitiv fengje “get” (which I think got is -e- from the present to avoid homonymity with “catch”). Compare “walk, go (fig.)” along with archaic Nynorsk gange “go”. (The weak verb gange “multiply (math.)” is a recent formation from the noun gang “going, passage, iteration”.)

    fengje – feng – fekk – hev fenge
    gange – gjeng – gjekk – hev gjenge

  39. Modern Scandinavian has a nice doublet: Da strong få — får — fik — fået = ‘get’ with thoroughly dead past plural finge, vs weak fange (past fangede) = ‘catch’ (probably an LG loan).

    (fing > fink > fin̥k > fikk > fik by final devoicing, regressive assimilation and loss of consonant length distinction).

  40. Trond, stop copying my posts in the past.

  41. @Lars:
    > fing > fink […] by final devoicing

    Thanks, I wasn’t aware of this one, very interesting! In my head, this raises the question of how this “ng” was pronounced when this happened. For the devoicing, I assume it must have been [ng] or [ŋg]. Because if it was [ŋ], it would have been straight to [k] without the intermediate steps, right?

  42. Yes, /n/ and /g/ must have been separate at the start of the process. Also this happens with other word-final resonant + stop sequences as well, like Sw sopp vs Da svamp. Internally in Danish you can also find it in past gik (old plural ginge) and old imperatives gak and stat, and there are a number of doublets like bakke/banke that are cross-dialectal loans.

  43. David Marjanović says

    That makes me wonder why almost all of German has [ŋ] for every final ng given that final fortition was supposedly universal in Middle High German.

  44. @The New Yorker – feng _is_ Chinese as in feng shui. There feng is drawn as the wind character. The ‘e’ is pronounced as a schwa.

    I know a Chinese woman whose given name is Feng and it refers to the phoenix bird.

  45. David Marjanović says

    The ‘e’ is pronounced as a schwa.

    Not quite. Apart from being automatically nasalized before ng, it’s [ɤ], the unrounded vowel corresponding to the rounded [o].

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