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shameless pleading






Patients of Jobs.

Dear Word Detective: I grew up (in the northeast) with my dad using the word “finagle” quite liberally and usually in reference to how he cleverly obtained something. I’ve found the word in the dictionary, however have not been able to come up with the origin of the word. Any ideas? — Wayne Kulick.

Ideas? I don’t fiddle with “ideas,” buckaroo. I deal with cold, hard facts. If it’s “ideas” you want, drop a line to that “creative” crowd at Apple. They could probably whip up an “iOrigin” for you with sleek, rounded contours and the voice of Bono making the Indo-European roots sound like Celtic poetry. But then the battery would die, and you’d have to take it to an Apple Store and endure the sneers of the trendoid twits in the black t-shirts. So you’re better off with me.

“Finagle” is a fine old word, and, as a native of the northeastern US myself, I remember my parents using it as well. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), “finagle” is actually in widespread use throughout the US, and is spelled a variety of ways, including “fanigle,” “finigal,” and, presumably among the high-falutin’ crowd, “phenagle.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “finagle” as “To use dishonest or devious methods to bring something about; … to scheme, to get (something) by trickery.” The American Heritage Dictionary is similarly disapproving: “To obtain or achieve by indirect, usually deceitful methods… to cheat; swindle.”

But while the element of outright dishonesty is definitely sometimes part of “finagling,” I would suggest that the usual use of the word carries the implication of bending, perhaps twisting, but not breaking the rules. Crooked stockbrokers may “finagle” with schemes that pauperize their clients, but your average “finagler” is just looking for an angle, an insider’s discount on storm windows or use of the company truck after work. “Finagle” to me is about clever persuasion, not vulgar fraud.

As is so often the case with colorful words, the exact origin of “finagle,” which first appeared in American English in the 1920s, is a bit cloudy. It has been traced to the old English dialect word “fainaigue,” meaning “to cheat, renege (especially in a card game) or to shirk work,” but at that point the trail goes cold. An English word similar in meaning and superficially similar in form, “faineant” (meaning “one who does nothing, an idler”), derives from an old French compound of “fait” (“he does”) and “neant” (“nothing”), so there may be a clue there. It’s also interesting that the original spelling of “renege” (from the Latin “re,” again, plus “negare,” to deny) in English was “reneague,” which might imply that “fait” plus “neague” (perhaps adding up to “he reneges”) might be hiding somewhere in the family tree of “finagle.”

19 comments to Finagle

  • Topi Linkala

    There is a finnish joke about swedish engineers: Engineer in swedish is ‘ingenjör’, ‘ingen’ is none and ‘gör’, which is prononced same as ‘jör’, is third person of ‘göra’ which to do. So in swedich engineers are nothing doers.


  • Lisbeth Solberg

    Perhaps the word finagle is related to the word feign (and/or feint). That would make sense in the context of card games.

  • Kathleen Hawk

    I am surprised to see OED’s take on this word’s history, because it was common currency in the first, second and third generations of my Irish-American father’s family. And the use of it was, to my mind, so typically Irish in its sly, up-from-under humor with clear undertones of pleasure in beating the system.

    Slipping a word like “fainaigue” under the umbrella of Old English and then trying to create a Norman association seems a little tenuous for something with the complicated affect and implicit rule-breaking tenor (always suggesting the entry of class-control issues) of finagle.

    One of these days I mean to write something about the OED’s high-toned oblivion to the cultural and class issues that either shaped new words or distorted the original meanings of older English words. Look at sheriff or felon as example of new words confirming the property interests of the Norman aristocracy in conflict with the concerns of the little people whose work supported their lifestyle. Among the old words is “silly” which has slipped from something like a magical concept to a dismissal. And don’t even get me started on “lust.”

    I realize I’m ranting here, and I apologize. But in my etymological cosmology, “social control” words like this are either bastardizations of more positive concepts originating in the pre-Roman or pre-Christian eras, or words developed by early ruling or propertied classes to convince the formerly unruly natives that serfdom is in their best interests.

    And so, I suspect that such words often developed a separate usage among those under-classes. In the world I grew up in, finagling was a good thing, valued as a survival skill as well as a kind of social commentary. It was modeled for us as children, and we were expected to learn it. But it was also a “secret” in the sense that we would never admit to it to anyone outside the family or cultural group (where it was celebrated). It was, in a small way, a form of revolutionary behavior, nibbling at the empire as it were.

    Finally, having grown up with these kinds of ideas, I was very interested when I went to London and was exposed to the London cabbies, who all seemed to be of a similar class. (And actually, since I do PR for a living, I should also acknowledge the old-fashioned type of English muck-raking journalist.) Cynical, resigned about the inevitability of class inequity, but relentlessly poking at it with jokes and instructional tales of greed, stupidity and corruption. All with accents and usages that were far from the Queen’s English.

    • Monica Flynn

      VERY well said!!! That is my own understanding and experience of the word as first generation Irish and on countless journeys through Ireland.

  • lawrence kelly

    how do I finagle a cup of coffee with Kathleen Hawk —

  • Don’t hold back Kathleen! lol … I do agree with you that OED seems to lean to a Latin explanation whenever it can or just marks the word’s upspring as “unknown”. I’ve also found the OED’s wordstock to be lacking. I often find old words with Merriam-Webster’s that aren’t in the OED.

    If you think there is an Irish/Gaelic root, give it to us! … I’m not doubting you because it very well could have one. I would just like see your ideas on it.

  • Steve PInkston

    I have always assumed that finagle was a variant on inveigle. The meanings seem somewhat related, although inveigle seems to be a gentler verb – getting your way through charm and persuasion rather than by guile or trickery as implied by finagle.

  • Denis Bergin

    Hmm. Interesting that the Irish angle should come up in this, since the etymology of the word may well have, or indeed must have, its origins in the life and times of the German-born Cistercian Fr.? Gregor Von Feinagle, who had a short but interesting career as a memory-man and school founder in Britain and in Ireland, where he died in 1811 (I came across him in chronicling the short-lived Feinaglian school in Kilkenny, but he also established one in Dublin and influenced several others, including the Benedictine school at Ampleforth in England). In the usual Irish fashion, his achievements, and indeed his faults, became mythologized.

  • Jay

    I find it funny that this article is actually quite heavy on “ideas” and quite thin on facts. I’m not complaining or critiquing, it’s a well written response and a nice read. I’m just pointing that out because of the extraneous rant that the author went on declaring the opposite would be true. I guess I’m doing a little “word detecting” of my own.

  • Annemarie

    I’ve only recently heard it for the first time and I immediately thought it would have a Dutch or German origin. In Dutch you have “vernaggelen” which also means something like “to cheat” and the first part “ver” is similar in pronunciation as “fi” so it may just be that it comes from Dutch or German immigrants?

  • Rufus

    I just came across this claim:
    “Not many people today know that a fenagler originally was one who used Gregor Von Feinaigle’s imagery mnemonic to win at whist by remembering the cards that had been played during the game.” In M. C. Wittrock (1978): The cognitive movement in instruction , Educational Psychologist, 13:1, 15-29

  • Laura

    And here I thought it was Yiddish.

  • I had assumed this term was of Irish origin… I am not convinced that it isn’t. Kathleen Hawk NAILED it… In my family also it is viewed in a positive light along with “Schmoozing” and other implements of social mobility adopted by the working class.

  • Lewis Edgel

    Me mum was of Irish descent and she said that the word “finagle” came from feinagal and that word meant foreign people… as in the Fingal region of modern Ireland. She said the people there who seemed to have a good grasp of Gaelic one day, suddenly could not understand the terms of an agreement the next day and would argue that there was a misunderstanding due to language differences. Eventually the term became a generic description for people who liked to leave some wiggle room in an agreement to use if they did not want to keep up their end of a bargain.

  • Alex H-M

    I agree with Annemarie, it sounds like the Dutch word vernaggeld. Laura also has a point when mentioning Yiddish, anybody who knows any Yiddish to support this angle?

  • Margaret Garvie

    I think Dennis Bergen is correct .Byron used the word in canto 11 of DonJuan using the same spelling. I heard the word for the first time at a funeral I recently attended in Glasgow.

  • Lisa R.

    I grew up with the word used in my family being used to make things somehow work. Ex. Like trying to fit something in a space. You would try to finagle it in there, though it seemed like it wouldn’t work. I guess cheat or get one over on the chore? I used the word recently and a younger person laughed. I’m def. Older now. Lol!

  • Betsy S

    Wow, love the comments everyone has made, my favorite being the Word Detective’s “clever persuasion”. I am also from the Northeast, 69 years old, and have always loved the word.

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