Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
Delving into The Origin of Feces, by veterinarian David Waltner-Toews, I came upon this passage:
Medieval English hunters referred to the feces of hunted animals as “fewmets,” a term derived from Old English feawa, meaning “scant” or “few,” and “encounter” (metan), which suggests that wildlife turds are difficult to find. The turds of aardvarks seem to be fewmets indeed. Some use the term “fumets” to refer to deer droppings.
I know, your folke etymology/eggcorne alarm bells are tintinnabulating. Some quick web-based spatilomancy developed into a pleasant evening spent probing deeper into deer turds. First off, another biologist presents a slightly different tapestry:
Deer fumets tend to resemble those of sheep.
T.H. White, in The Sword in the Stone (1939), referred to droppings of the Questing Beast by the ancient word “fewmets”. In his story, they had to be collected in a hunting horn as objective evidence that the quarry had been located. (This was not a pure fictional invention of White’s: he must have read somewhere that hunters in Angola used to put dung into their hunting horns for good fortune.) The more usual spelling, for deer droppings, is “fumets,” a word derived through the Latin fimus, from the Greek thyma, which meant “an offering” and was probably used as a sort of joke.
Hmm, Ralph is known for clever scientific verse in the phycology world but he misses the boat here. Fimus meant “thing from which vapours arise”, related to fumus, “smoke”, and perhaps giving rise eventually to the disdainful fie in English, among other products. In fact, back then, femus, fimus and fumus were pretty much interchangeable to go by the etymologists, not to say fee, fie, foe, fum. Here’s the online ED’s take on fume: late 14c., from Latin fumus “smoke, steam, fume” (source of Italian fumo, Spanish humo), from PIE *dheu- (cf. Sanskrit dhumah, Old Church Slavonic dymu, Lithuanian dumai, Old Prussian dumis “smoke,” Middle Irish dumacha “fog,” Greek thymos “spirit, mind, soul”). Holy smokes. An offering in the old days pretty much meant a no-joke barbecue of some sort as a way of communicating directly with the heavens. That way the gods got wind of your wishes directly.
Let’s look into the Arthurian connection, through the quest of the Pellinores for the barking beast.
“It is the Burden of the Pellinores,” said the King proudly. “Only a Pellinore can catch it—that is, of course, or his next of kin. Train all the Pellinores with that idea in mind. Limited eddication, rather. Fewmets, and all that.”
“I know what fewmets are,” said the boy with interest. “They are the droppings of the beast pursued. The harborer keeps them in his horn, to show to his master, and can tell by them whether it is a warrantable beast or otherwise, and what state it is in.”
“Intelligent child,” remarked the King. “Very. Now I carry fewmets about with me practically all the time.”
We will return to this noble scatological practice below.
Fewmets and fumets have coexisted for centuries, judging by this entry in a French-English dictionary from 1776:
Anglois and françois. Interesting.
Fumet itself, , is a fine French word which, on the model of bouquet, describes the pleasant smell of cooking, the bouquet of wine, a specific fragrant gravy of truffles and mushrooms (e.g. « perdrix relevées d’un fumet surprenant », “partridge (lifted, set apart, flavoured) by a surprising fumet” in the words of Molière himself), descending to the natural fragrance of man and earth, thence to odours left by the passage of animals. Fewmet must be the anglicised word. It’s hard to say whether the original transformation was eggcornical; the derivation above, into the double-yolked “few met”, is certainly of the modern folk etymological sort which is fodder for this forum. The etymology related by Waltner-Toews is not due to him. I found a similar version from . The folk story has now been expunged from that page.
Let’s track this one to its lair. The Sportsman’s Dictionary of 1785 describes some of the sporting words for droppings.
Lesses looks François, from laisses, “leavings”. Fewmets and fewmishing might have been anglicized fumets and fumition. Blittering – delicious word. Crotiles, also found spelled crottels, would be “turdlets” in modern Quebec, not bad for the hard little daytime dejections which my friend’s little brother ate, thinking they were raisins, when we were kids.
Fewmets can be found, spelled like that, back in 1575, in a translation of a French book on the noble art of hunting. Since the earliest record for fumet in French is from scant decades earlier, we may imagine this to be the transformative event or close to it. This is unusually good luck. Here is an account of the practice of presenting the turds to the queen, for her practiced appreciation.
The second new illustration depicts the next important stage in the day’s events, a highly technical moment: the ‘reporte of a Huntesman upon the sight of an Hart, in pride of greace’ shows the Queen viewing the deer’s ‘fewmets’ (droppings), from which she could, as an experienced woodman, deduce its condition. It is only here, in his descriptions of the royal hunt, that Gascoigne displays any diffidence about his knowledge of the sport: ’... I have set it downe in suche termes as I can, desiring all Masters of Venerie and olde huntesmen, to beare with my boldnesse in uttering my simple knowledge’ (sig. F7). In this second new woodcut, the queen stands on a railed wooden platform with the three female attendants and three male courtiers, with the huntsman before her displaying the fewmets on leaves, as described in the text. Elizabeth would then choose which of the deer she wished to hunt.
“The report of a Huntesman vpon the sight of an Hart, in pride of greace”
Before the Queene, I come report to make
Then husht and peace, for noble Trystram’s sake
From out my horne my fewmets fyrst I drawe
And them present, on leaues, by hunter’s lawe;
And thus I say; my liege behold and see
An hart of tenne, I hope he harbored bee;
For, if you marke his fewmets euery poynt,
You shall them find, longe, round, and well annoynt,
Knottie and great, withouten prickes or eares,
The moystnesse shewes, what venysone he beares.
Fewmets steam on bleak
Frost-covered leaves, hunter stoops
Soon blood will melt ice
Delightful meditation. And not even that smelly (deer pellets, like those of other herbivores, present mixed nasal signals to most people).
which my friend’s little brother ate, thinking they were raisins, when we were kids.
We called them “smart pills” when I was growing up. The phrase was .
Waltner-Toews book sounds interesting—will look for it. I read his fascinating Food, Sex, and Salmonella a couple of years ago.
Translated as “fiemo” in a Spanish version:
It’s a word from around here, where I live:Navarre, La Rioja, Aragon. From the Latin “Fimus” (Dung) according to the RAE
Though it does seem to mean “manure” rather than “scat”.
On the plain in Spain where it mainly rains.