Dear Word Detective: Here is an expression I have heard all my life in my family and, perhaps, the Ozarks of Missouri. When someone is upset and making a fuss, they are said to “faunch and rear.” Not sure of the spelling on “faunch,” but it seems horse-related. Any ideas on its origin and meaning? — John.
Oh boy, a horse-related question. (Memo to the computer industry: please develop a reliable method of conveying sarcasm in print.) Has anyone ever noticed that most of the words we associate with horses depict uncooperative, dangerous and frequently homicidal behavior on the part of our equine “friends”? Horses “rear,” they “bolt,” they “stampede,” they “balk” at inconvenient moments and “throw” their riders, and, in their down-time, they kick and bite. Seriously. Mention our wedding to my wife and she will invariably bring up the fact that, shortly after the ceremony, an NYPD police horse tried to bite her. (You folks didn’t have police horses at your wedding? You missed all the fun.)
“Faunch” is a new one on me, and, to judge by the number of people asking about the term on the internet, I am far from alone. You’ve hit the accepted spelling on the nose, although the forms “fauch” and “fawnch” apparently show up occasionally. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), “faunch” is common in the South Midlands (which would include Missouri) and in the West of the US.
“Faunch and rear” is definitely a horse-related idiom, if for no other reason than the “rear,” a verb meaning, in this case, “to rise up on the hind legs,” an alarming but not uncommon mode of expression among really teed-off or frightened horses. Incidentally, if a horse ever rears up at you, the safest course is to move, as quickly and calmly as possible, back to the city.
Applied to people, according to DARE, “faunch” has been used since at least 1911 (the earliest it has been found in print) to mean “to rant, rave or rage” (“It’s jest once in a great while that George gits to foamin’ an’ faunchin’, but law! When he does he’s a reg’lar springtime flood,” 1933). DARE also lists a milder form of “faunch,” meaning simply “to fret; to show irritation or impatience,” which has been found since around 1970. This would make “faunching” a near synonym of “champing,” as in “champing at the bit,” meaning a horse chewing on the “bit,” or mouthpiece of its bridle, in anticipation or annoyance. (“Champ” in this sense is thought to have arisen in imitation of the sound of the horse’s chewing.) “Champing at the bit” is, of course, widely applied as a metaphor to people who are visibly impatient to begin something.
So the original sense of “faunch” may simply have been the same as “champ,” the action of an annoyed, excited or angry horse, making the combination of “faunch and rear” an apt metaphor for a person “pitching a fit,” as we say in Ohio. Unfortunately, the origin of the word “faunch” itself is a complete mystery. There have been suggestions that it was derived from the obsolete English word “faunt,” meaning “infant or child” (from the Old French “enfaunt,” infant), but, apart from the fact that infants are often irritable, there is no apparent connection between the words.
In all likelihood, “faunch” arose, like “champ,” as an imitation of the sound of a horse chewing on its bit. If so, “faunch” sounds a bit like the critter is foaming at the mouth as well, so I’d strongly advise heading for the airport.