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shameless pleading






But does the Jolly Green Giant smell like the produce section?

Dear Word Detective:  My late Aunt Thelma used to say “fum” instead of “smell,” like in “You fum good” or “Supper fums good.” We thought it was an old family joke or something, but I’ve been wondering lately, could it be an old expression related to “fumes”? Her generation of the family (from Scotland and Wales) used lots of old words that people look at me like I’m a lunatic for using now. — Nancy.

Funny how that works, isn’t it? When you’re a little kid, you hear people around you using all sorts of words, and you figure out what most of them mean from context (e.g., an “uncle” is a strange man who appears several times a year to tell stupid jokes). Then, as you grow up and move away from home, you discover that most of the people you meet have never heard of a lot of those words, and you (and your new friends) begin to wonder whether you were, in fact, raised by Martians. My mother, for instance, used to speak of someone having a “scunner” against someone else, by which she seemed to mean “a grudge.” It wasn’t until I used the word to several people many years later and got puzzled looks in return that I actually looked  it up and discovered that “scunner” is a Scots dialect word meaning, yes, “a grudge or dislike.” It comes from the verb “to scunner” (to flinch or feel disgust), which dates back to the 15th century and may be connected to either “to shun” or “to scare.” So your hunch that your Aunt Thelma wasn’t just making up nonsense words is probably justified.

The best-known use of the word “fum” is probably in the refrain “Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread” recited by one of the giants in the ancient English folk tale “Jack the Giant Killer.” The tale (which is obviously related to but more complex than “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which also contains the refrain) exists in many versions, and was so well-known by 1605 that Shakespeare gave it a shout-out in King Lear (“Child Roland to the dark tower came, His word was still, Fie, foh, and fum, I smell the blood of a British man.”).

But while the giant’s rhyme seems to connect “fum” to the sense of smell, and your Aunt probably knew it by heart as most children once did, it doesn’t necessarily mean that “fum” as she used it came from the tale. Browsing through the two dictionaries of Scots dialect I own (which come in handy more often than you’d think), it seems that the only meaning listed for “fum” is “a useless, slovenly woman,” which isn’t very helpful on any count. But “fume” is defined as “a scent or fragrance,” which does put us back on track. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sense of the verb “to fume” as “Of food, wine, etc.: To rise as fumes (to or into the head),” which also fits with your Aunt’s use of “fum” to mean “to smell.”

The only hurdle to pronouncing Aunt Thelma’s “fum” simply a use of “fume” in this sense is, obviously, the usual pronunciation of “fume” as “fyoom.” (I’m assuming here that she pronounced “fum” as “fuhm” with no “y” sound.) But it’s not uncommon for a word to change its  sound in dialectical usage, and the usual use of “fume” in a negative sense may actually have contributed to a changed pronunciation for the positive “fum” sense. Perhaps it even came to be regarded as a separate word, i.e., “noxious fumes” versus “nice fum.” It’s also possible that the giant’s “Fee-fi-fo-fum” rhyme from “Jack the Giant Killer” influenced the change. In any case, I’d say that it’s highly likely that your hunch was correct, and your aunt was actually using a specialized sense of our modern word “fume.”

3 comments to Fum

  • Jim niro

    What about the lyrics of the Christmas carol “Fum, fum,, fum”? “On December five and twenty fum, fum, fum.”

  • walter louis

    In my opinion any time you start to try and figure out the etymology of phonetic lyrics,you are -ahem- investigating
    [ please note the clever detective reference]
    wordless singing which i argue is primal in the evolution of language ie animal calling becomes singing becomes speaking.

  • Alex

    Walter, that theory is probably wrong as singing and speaking involve totally different parts of the brain (right and left hemispheres respectively). This is why if a left-brain stroke patient loses their language they use singing therapy to get them to try and “re-lateralise” to the right side.

    I’d be very careful about the Catalan folk song and the Jack and the Beanstalk example, both seem onomatopoeic for your average (g)rumbling noise.

    “Fum” was the Middle English way of saying “fume(s)”, borrowed from French (compare “parfum”). The vowel would have been a straight “oo”, no “y” sound in there.

    However I can’t find any mention of it in standard dialect. I would argue it’s a family thing, scent is commonly sold in French (“eau de parfum”, etc.) Maybe a child’s/playful coinage within the family from reading one of the bottles.

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