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Old fogey

Q From Susan England: While discussing the difficulty my husband and I have with modern electronics, he described us both as old fogies, which got me to thinking about the origin of that term.

A I do hope his use of this unflattering epithet was humorous. An old fogey is a person of advanced years — or seems to be so to the person doing the describing — who holds on to attitudes that they learned when they were young and rejects new things, so appearing old-fashioned, behind the times and past it.

There’s nothing new about old fogey. It was first recorded by Francis Grose in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1785. He said that old fogey, and fogey by itself, was a nickname for an invalid soldier. Others later suggested it was also used for a garrison soldier, one too old or infirm for active service, who was often sent out to get new recruits. The only real-life example I can find is this, in a report of one such from Carrickfergus in northern Ireland:

During the last week, a recruiting party of the Old Fogies had decoyed a number of young lads, by means of intoxication, &c. at which the friends and comrades of the deluded recruits were exceedingly displeased and disgusted.

Morning Post, 3 Apr. 1793.

Other early examples focus on old age and out-of-touchness:

Well, here I am, on the eve, or rather on the day, of visiting a rich old fogey of an uncle, who has not been in London for these forty years.

The Duel, or My Two Nephews, by Richard Brinsley Peake, 1823.

It became common in the 1860s and has remained in use ever since, though the last half century has seen a falling off in its popularity. On occasion, it has been compared and contrasted with a young fogey, a youngish person with notably conservative tastes and attitudes.

We call them old fogies; but there are young fogies, too. Old fogyism begins at a younger age than we think. I am almost afraid to say so, but I believe that in the majority of human beings it begins at about twenty-five.

Talks to Teachers on Psychology; and to Students on some of Life’s Ideals, by William James, 1899.

Young fogey became popular quite suddenly in Britain in the early 1980s, during Margaret Thatcher’s first period in office, referring to a particular brand of young conservative who aped the clothes, opinions and manners of their seniors. It’s still around, though the fashion for the term and the type have both passed.

Were there ever fogies, not particularised as old? Francis Grose hints so in his dictionary but a systematic search finds nothing.

Enquiries about its origins leave us uncertain. Grose suggested that it came from the French fougueux, fierce or fiery, which doesn’t fit the sense at all. Modern dictionaries prefer foggy, a Scots dialectal word meaning moss-grown or decrepit. It could also mean damp or boggy and it’s the source of fog for a coarse grass growing in damp or boggy conditions and also fog for the type of weather. Foggy is also recorded from the sixteenth century for a person who was, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “unwholesomely bloated, swollen with flabby and unhealthy corpulence”. Some dictionaries mention fogram, a superannuated person or an old fuddy-duddy, which appeared a few years before old fogey. From its date, form and meaning it must be connected in some way, but nobody knows how.

One other suggestion that appears in some books and also online argues that old fogey is from the one-time American armed forces slang fogy for a long-service pay increase. Fogy was first noted by Lewis R Hamersly in his Naval Encyclopaedia of 1881 and by De Witt Clinton Fall in Army and Navy Information of 1917; it remained in active use in the services until after the Second World War. But its dating is enough to show that it can’t possibly be the source of old fogey.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 10 Jan. 2015

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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: 10 January 2015.