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shameless pleading

Faunch and rear

Down boy.

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.

6 comments to Faunch and rear

  • Dick Stacy

    I live in Colorado, where the expression: “faunching at the bit” is quite common.

  • Doc

    It seems to me that “champ at the bit” is giving way to an “eggcorn.” Most everyone I know says “chomp at the bit,” to the extent that it is becoming or has become legitimate.

  • Esty

    Here in Kansas some of us also say “faunching at the bit” without having any knowledge of why. So glad to have the answer to that puzzling question.

  • Elsa

    My mom always used “faunch” as a sort of synonym for “search.” She’d say things like “if you faunch around in my purse long enough you might find some Lifesavers.” Or, “You’ve been faunching around in your closet forever — just find something to wear and let’s go!” We still use it that way but apparently no one else does. But it reminds me of her so its somewhat unconventional usage lives on in our family!

  • Ok. Let me clear this up for you. Champing at the bit has nothing to do with sounds nor is it chomping. it has to do with the impatience a horse displays when the reins are held snugged back to keep the horse from taking off. The horse will shake and snake its head back and forth as well as up and down. It is obviously eager to move out. Only the rider is holding it back. Champing at the bit. Faunching is a different activity, it is pulling back on a lead rope and again snaking its head back and forth as well as up and down. The horse will also give little hops as it rears back very slightly. The horse doesn’t want to cooperate. It will, it just wants to be difficult about it. To let you know it isn’t happy about it. For more accurate emotional tell on a horse–watch the ears. Flat to the head and if you don’t know what you’re doing–get the H….out of there.

  • Laurel

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=faunch
    This website entry has my vote for possible derivation: from the Irish “fonn taodach” – to quote Daniel Cassidy’s book, “How the Irish Invented Slang” (p.139) “an impulsive frame of mind, jittery excitation, a fierce humor”, taodach meaning “excited, fidgety, quick-tempered.”

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