8 April 2016


If you’ve been keeping up with our new YouTube series, you might remember possibly the strangest word we’ve ever come across from our Words You Won’t Believe Exist video: the eighteenth century verb feague.

Feague, for those of you who don’t already know (or practise it), means “to put a piece of ginger up a horse’s anus,” with the somewhat predictable outcome of making him appear more lively. If you think that sounds impossibly cruel, then fear not—according to the 1811 edition of Francis Grose’s aptly titled Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, it was just as common to replace the ginger with a live eel. A much more sensible idea, I’m sure you’ll agree.

So why on earth—seriously, why? FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WHY?—would anyone want to spend even one microfortnight of their day forcing a piece of ginger up a horse’s arse? 

“You’re going to do WHAT?”

Well, as explained (though, alas, not demonstrated) in our video, if you were selling the horse, then it’s only natural that you would want it to look as frisky and as energetic as possible, to ensure that you got the best price for it. And if there’s one thing guaranteed to make a horse frisky, it’s shoving the spicy root of a herbaceous perennial up its ass. That makes feaguing essentially the 250-year-old equivalent of those tricks estate agents use when prospective buyers stop by. You know how it goes—a bouquet of freshly picked flowers on the table. A fresh pot of coffee brewing in the kitchen. A horse desperately trying to evacuate a live eel from its poop chute in the garden. 

Another fairly cruel means of improving the asking price of your horse incidentally was bishoping, which involved filing down its teeth. Because horse’s teeth continue to grow throughout their lives, shaving them down meant that even a worn out old carthorse could pass as a young colt, and in that sense bishoping was essentially the eighteenth-century equine equivalent of botox. Or six pints of Guinness.

But while bishoping was straightforwardly enough named after a crooked horse salesman named Mr Bishop, feaguing is more of an etymological mystery. 

One theory is that it comes from fake, which besides its more familiar meaning was used in nineteenth century slang to mean “to tamper with something in order to deceive.” That sounds exactly like our horse-enlivening ginger insertion, but the dates don’t match up—in fact, the OED suggests faking in this sense might derive from feaguing, not the other way around.

Another theory is that feague comes from an even earlier sixteenth century word, feak or fyke, meaning “to twitch” or “to be restless.” Twitching and restlessness certainly sounds along the lines of feaguing, but this theory stumbles because by the time feague first began to appear in the language, feak had morphed into a more figurative word, meaning “to be officiously busy,” or “to appear busy, yet accomplish little.” Hey, we’ve all been there.

But then there’s this:

’Slife, this She Devil will ruin me! Alas, madam, she’s merry, she drolls; but come, let’s dance and put these things out of our heads. Come in, Minnim and Crotchet, and fegue your violins away, fa, la, la, la!

That’s a line from The Humorist, a play written in 1671 by the English playwright Thomas Shadwell. Here, “Minnim and Crotchet” are the names of musicians, and when they’re called upon to “fegue their violins,” they’re not being told to put a piece of ginger inside them (nor, for that matter, to put their violins somewhere it’s anatomically unadvisable) but to start playing them, quickly and energetically. 

To feague away was a seventeenth century phrase basically meaning “to set in quick motion,” “to agitate,” or “to work flat out.” It’s thought that it derives from an even earlier sixteenth century word, feg or feagle, meaning “to beat” or “thrash,” which in turn probably comes from an even older German word, fegen, meaning “to clean” or “sweep”, or to busy yourself with housework. 

Feaguing away then seems to be the missing link: it’s easy to see how a word meaning “to busy yourself with housework” could give birth to a phrase meaning “to work quickly,” or “to agitate,” and ultimately “to enliven” or “to make energetic.” The ginger-inserting part, it seems, was just a bit of added spice.

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