Mr. Skim of Dewey, Cheatem & Howe called.
Dear Word Detective: Is the word “finagle” of Gaelic descent? My maiden name was Nagle. We descended from County Cork, Ireland. Just wondering. — Catherine Meyer.
Hey, I understand. Names are very personal things. When you’re a kid you try to imagine where your name came from, some way it makes sense and how the particular mojo of your name might shape your life. If your name is Baker or Smith, of course, somewhere way back on the family tree there probably was a baker or a blacksmith. But does it also work the other way? How many kids today subconsciously tilt towards a career in cooking because their name is Baker? And how many little Smiths are doomed to a life of furtively registering in seedy motels? Such questions are, sadly, beyond my ken, which is another name fraught with questions. But hey, how weird is it that the Ponzi scheme uncovered last year that bilked investors of $50 billion was run by a guy whose name is pronounced “made off”? Next time the Clue Phone rings, folks, I suggest you consider answering it.
Where were we? Right, the “Nagle-finagle” connection, if any. Well, if you’re wondering whether your true calling might have been as a flim-flam artist, I’d say no. As far as I’ve been able to tell, there’s no connection between your name and the verb “finagle,” meaning “to use dishonest or devious tactics to get something by trickery.” And while I’m not an expert in onomastics (the study of proper names, from the Greek “onoma,” name, which is related to the word “name” itself), “Nagle” strikes me as an eminently trustworthy moniker.
“Finagle,” on the other hand, even sounds shifty. A “finagler” is a schemer, someone who doesn’t so much swindle you as maneuver you into doing something good for him. “Finagling” also often means “to fudge, to fiddle” with rules or figures, or to bypass rules or restrictions with smooth talk (“Any attempt to fudge or finagle or to get ahead of the other fellow will be recognized by the judge for what it is,” 1955).
Although “finagle” first appeared in the 1920s and is considered US slang, its roots apparently lie in the English rural dialect term “fainaigue,” meaning “to cheat.” There are some indications that the term may originally have come from cards, where it meant to fail to follow suit (play a card of the same suit as the preceding) when able or required to do so.