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Q From David Bourque: I was wondering where finagle originates? Does it commemorate some crafty Irishman?

A You’re perhaps thinking of Fingal’s Cave, or of another Irish person with a similar name? Though some Irish writers like to find an Irish origin in any odd term, this one isn’t from that tongue. Others have suggested it’s Yiddish, perhaps because it rhymes with bagel. In The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time, William Safire mentions a theory that it derives from the name of Gregor von Feinaigle; he was a German monk and educator who worked out a method of improving the memory that he introduced in lectures in Paris in 1807 and later in Britain.

A link with a real person might be suggested by two creations of the science and computing communities. One is Finagle’s Constant, a mathematical device that’s inserted into a formula to make the answer come out right, and Finagle’s Law, a corollary to Murphy’s Law — anything that can go wrong will go wrong and at the worst possible moment. This can be expressed as “Once a job is fouled up, anything done to improve it makes it worse”. Another version asserts that the perversity of the universe tends to a maximum.An elaboration appears in Essential Public Health: Theory and Practice by Stephen Gillam and Jan Yates (2007): “The information you have is not the information you want. The information you want is not the information you need. The information you need is not what you can get or is not known. The information that is known can’t be found in time”.

Finagle is US slang and means to obtain something by dishonest or devious means, to wangle or manoeuvre, or slyly gain an advantage by deceit. It dates from the 1920s, with the first known use being of finagler, a person who finagles. Harold Wentworth noted it in his American Dialect Dictionary as “political cant”. Wentworth and Flexner’s slang dictionary suggested it could mean in particular “one who stalls until somebody else pays the check”, a tightwad or miserly person.

Finagle has been traced to an English dialect word, once widely known along the Welsh Marches and down into the West Country in a variety of spellings, including fainaigue. The English Dialect Dictionary a century ago supplied two main meanings. One was to revoke at cards (that is, to fail to follow suit despite being able to do so); the other was to fail to keep a promise or to shirk. A glossary of Herefordshire words dated 1839 says “If two men are heaving a heavy weight, and one of them pretends to be putting out his strength, though in reality leaving all the strain on the other, he is said to feneague.”

Taking it further back is almost impossible. The English Dialect Dictionary suggested it might derive from Old French fornier, to deny, and that the odd ending -aigue (often spelled -eague in dialect sources) might derive from the card-game sense of renege, with the same meaning as revoke, which was at one time spelled reneague.

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Page created 12 Jul 2008