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Fine fettle

Q From Pat Cagle: I do, indeed, feel in fine fettle today. However, a young friend asked where the word fettle came from as she had never heard of it. It seems fettle is always used with fine and I realize now I have never heard it expressed in any other way. If you have the time I shall appreciate learning its origin.

A These days, you’re indeed likely only to hear fettle when it’s shackled to fine to make a set phrase. It’s a fossil, left over from a time when the word was better known. The repeated initial letter undoubtedly helped stick them together, which is why you only rarely (if ever) hear of something in good fettle or bad fettle or the like. Older works sometimes employ other modifiers: in John Barleycorn by Jack London, for example, there appears: “Those fifty-one days of fine sailing and intense sobriety had put me in splendid fettle”.

The word was most typically used as a verb meaning to put things in order, tidy up, arrange, or prepare. Here’s an example, from Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey of 1847, in the Yorkshire dialect speech of a servant: “But next day, afore I’d gotten fettled up — for indeed, Miss, I’d no heart to sweeping an’ fettling, an’ washing pots; so I sat me down i’ th’ muck — who should come in but Maister Weston!”. In northern English it can still have the sense of making or repairing something. In Australia, a fettler is a railway maintenance worker, responsible for keeping the line in good shape. It’s also used in some manufacturing trades — in metal casting and pottery it describes the process of knocking the rough edges off a piece. But all of these are variants of the basic sense. So the noun refers to condition, order or shape, and fine fettle means to be in good order or condition.

Its origins are a bit obscure. It seems to come from the Old English fetel for a belt, so the verb probably first had the meaning of girding oneself up, as for a heavy task. It’s related to the German Fessel for a chain or band, but not to the confusingly similar fetter, which actually comes from the same root as foot.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 4 Mar. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 4 March 2000.