Dear Word Detective: I was recently reading a journal of mine from when I was a good bit younger than today and found that I had used the phrase “full fledged” to refer to a rather robust beard, as opposed to a light smattering of stubble. Any idea where this came from? Does it have anything to do with an arrow fletcher? Oh, and just in case this gets answered, I’m a proud resident of the wonderful state of Dela-Where? — Addison Scott.
Well, there you go. You’ll never know what might catch my eye. By the way, I included your last line because I think it’s funny and, at least in my case, it’s true. I honestly have no idea of where Delaware is, though I’m fairly certain that it’s somewhere to the right of Pennsylvania. Is it near Rhode Island? Is there really a state named “Rhode Island”? Weird. According to Wikipedia (brace yourself), “… in other parts of the country, Rhode Island is referred to as ‘Little Rhody.'” Yeah, sure it is. Little Rhody. It was on the tip of my tongue. “Dela-Where,” however, is a keeper.
The American Heritage Dictionary gives three definitions for “full-fledged.” The first, “having reached full development; mature,” is the broadest in modern usage, useful to describe anything from a personal occupation (“Ortega … became a full-fledged matador in 2006 but has been hampered by repeated and serious gorings,” AP, 9/23/09) to a public health crisis (“US prepared for ‘full-fledged pandemic’ if necessary,” AP, 4/29/09). The second definition, “having full status or rank,” is good for describing things that have graduated from some larval stage (“Larry is now a full-fledged lawyer”). But it’s the third definition that gives a hint as to the roots of the term: “Having fully developed adult plumage.”
“Plumage,” of course, means “the feathers of a bird” (from the Latin “pluma,” which also gave us “plume”), but the key here is the word “adult.” Baby birds usually emerge from their eggs with what you might call “starter” feathers, usually a downy set useful only for staying warm. As time passes and baby birdy grows, the stronger adult feathers appear, until finally the little nipper is ready to leave the nest and fly on his or her own. This process is known as “fledging,” a verb that appeared in the 16th century, derived from the now-obsolete adjective “fledge,” which meant “having feathers sufficient for flight.” The adjective “full-fledged,” which first appeared in the late 16th century, is based on “fledge” as a verb, and almost immediately was put to use in its modern figurative meaning of “mature and prepared.”
If we trace “fledge” back to its Germanic roots, we find the West German root word “fluggja,” which also gave us the English word “fly.” A young bird, nearly fully-feathered but still inexperienced, is called a “fledgling” (1830), a term also applied to a person inexperienced (“unfledged”) in a task or occupation.
Your question about “fletcher” is more complicated than it looks. A “fletcher” is a person who makes arrows, which, of course, have “flights” (vanes at the tail) often made from feathers. There is no recent connection between “fletcher” and “fledge,” but “fletcher,” via its French root “fleche” (arrow), may be drawn from the same ancient Germanic root word that produced both “fledge” and “fly.”