Dear Word Detective: I recently had one of my dubious schemes stymied and I used the old line “Curses! Foiled Again!” I know what curses are (all too well) but I got to thinking about “foiled.” Trying not to impose on you, I went the online dictionary and got “Origin: Middle English, alteration of ‘fullen’ to full cloth.” Huh? — Donald Wilkinson, Gaithersburg, MD.
Hmm. I think we have a failure to communicate here, folks. I appreciate your courtesy in not wishing to impose on me with your question, I really do. But what you might consider an “imposition” I consider “raw material.” If people don’t ask questions, I don’t have a column to write, and pretty soon hungry, yowling cats are circling my desk and camping out on my keyboard. A few years ago I tried the ninja-esque tactic of offering anyone who asked a question a free cat as a reward, but while my plea did produce questions, not a single person asked for their cat. Go figure. Anyway, keep those cards and letters coming, gang, the more the merrier.
I don’t blame you for being mystified by that origin for “foil” offered by the online dictionary (shame on you, Merriam-Webster). “Alteration of ‘fullen’ to full cloth” doesn’t explain anything and sounds like gibberish to boot. The key to unlocking that cryptic little phrase is the fact that “full” as they use it is actually a verb, and “to full” cloth is to beat or stamp on it in order to clean it (as people still beat a rug hanging on a clothesline to remove dust, etc.) or to compress or “thicken” it. I guess the folks at M-W thought we already knew that.
There are actually two kinds of “foil” in English. The “thin sheet of metal” sort of “foil” appeared in the early 14th century, derived from the Old French “fueille,” meaning “leaf,” which developed from the Latin “folium” (which also gave us “foliage”). One interesting descendant of this “foil” is its use to mean “a person who enhances the distinctive characteristics of another by contrast,” as in “Meg’s drab husband acted as her foil, making her witty comments seem even sharper.” This use of “foil” harks back to jewelers’ use of metal foil as a backing in gem mountings to make less-than-stellar stones sparkle more brightly (“In gems, that want colour & perfection, a foil is put under them to add to their lustre: in others, as in diamonds, the foil is black; & in this sense when a pretty woman chuses to appear in publick with a homely one, we say she uses her as a foil,” 1767).
The other sort of foil is the one meaning “to thwart, to prevent from succeeding,” found in the phrase “Curses, foiled again!” popularized by the character Snidely Whiplash, the villain in the Dudley Do-Right segments on the old Rocky and His Friends (aka Rocky & Bullwinkle) cartoon show. This brings us back to that cryptic verb “to full,” meaning “to beat or press.” This word appeared in English in the 14th century, adapted from Old French, which apparently based it on the Latin “fullo,” meaning “one who cleans cloth.” Unfortunately, the origin of that “fullo” is unknown.
“Foil,” closely related to that “full,” also first appeared in English in the 14th century, with the specific sense of “to trample down,” and eventually developed a sense specific to hunting meaning “to trample down and thus obscure a track or scent, thus preventing hounds from tracking the game.” This “foiling” could be done by other animals or even by the hounds themselves. In either case, it marked a defeat for the hunters, and by the 16th century “foil” was being used in its modern sense to mean “to defeat, to block, to baffle a foe.”
There is, I should mention, one other common use of “foil,” that of “light sword used in fencing,” which first appeared in the late 16th century. Most authorities consider this “foil” to be connected to the verb “to foil” above, perhaps reflecting the sense of “blunt” or “block” because the tip of a fencing foil usually has a small button at its point.