The Lively Fig.

We recently discussed the vanishing fig, but that was the gesture; there was a brief mention of the fruit word here. This is neither fig, but the one that occurs only in phrases like “in full fig” and “in fine fig” — it is the second entry in this AHD link. I recently ran across that usage, wondered what it was from, and discovered (see that AHD link) that it is “Perhaps from fig, to trot out a horse in lively condition, dress up, variant of feague, to make a horse lively, probably from Dutch vegen, to brush, from Middle Dutch vēghen.” The OED entry is ancient (from 1896) but has the same derivation, from to fig out “to dress, ‘get up’” from feague from German or Dutch, though “there may be mixture of a native word; compare feak v.3 [‘To twitch, jerk, pull smartly’],” whose etymology says “Compare fike v.1 and Old Norse fjúka to drift, fly away, and its causative feyka to blow, drive away, to rush.” And fike “To move restlessly, bustle, fidget” says “? < Old Norse fíkja (rare in Icelandic) = Middle Swedish fíkja to move briskly, be restless or eager. Compare Old Norse fíkenn eager. See fig v.3, fitch v.1, fidge v.” At this point I gave up the chase and decided it was one of those knots that’s best left alone.


  1. I’d think “fine” and “full” fit slightly better to describe a proud, well-brushed horse rather than one that is fidgeting, but of course I don’t know what connotation the original words had and these things don’t need to make logical sense anyway.

    I know what I assume must be the German cognate of Dutch “vegen” from Schornsteinfeger (which I knew in Munich as Kaminkehrer), i.e. chimney-sweep.

  2. It turns out David Marjanović mentioned that word last year! What are the odds?

  3. “a horse in lively condition”

    The liveliness and briskly-raised tail angle being due, specifically, to the ginger inserted in its unfortunate anus, the definitions have always told me (never by one who has engaged in the practice firsthand).

  4. I don’t know yet if this is a one-off, but, Legends of a Log Cabin, by A Western Man (NY, etc.,1835) p. 236:
    “Squire Humphries…was decked out in full figure,–coat, vest, and breeches, of purple velvet, small delicate cocked hat, and thin white sword,–a relique from that shrine of his idolatry, St. James’s; these gorgeous garments” [etc.]

  5. Huh. I’m guessing an early folk etymology/eggcorn that didn’t catch on.

  6. How about guessing ‘fig’ means ‘figure’ in the examples in the OP.

  7. No, it doesn’t. The OED doesn’t make up words, or mistake abbreviations for words.

  8. I meant the examples in the original publication that the OED or AHD is quoting. It sounds like something a hip young person might say.

  9. There’s also “figged out,” e.g.: “…, and he was figged out as fine as fivepence, with white jean trousers, and rings and chains, and Lord knows what.”
    Capt. [Frederick} Marryat, Poor Jack (NY, 1840) p. 163 [HathiTrust; also, different ed., GB].

  10. David Marjanović says

    Heh, heh. “Fundament”.

  11. Dr. Johnson once said that a woman had “a bottom of good sense”, and when there was some tittering, he glared at the company and said “I said the woman was FUNDAMENTALLY sensible”; as if to say (as Boswell tells it) “laugh now if you dare”.

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