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Pronounced /ˈfɛsəˌnaɪn/Help with pronunciation

Investigation of this useful, albeit extremely rare, adjective for matters considered licentious, obscene or scurrilous was provoked by a message from Curt Weil, who pointed out that it appeared in Jim Meddick’s Monty comic strip on 8 July 2008. Monty criticises a man for seemingly talking to a dolphin, which Monty calls a fish. The dolphin responds and his interlocutor translates it: “He said, firstly: Dolphins are not fish. They are mammals. Then he said something rather unflattering and fescennine about primates.”

The word comes from the name of the ancient Etruscan town of Fescennia, whose location isn’t known for sure, though it was somewhere near Civita Castellana or Corchiano in the modern region of Lazio in central Italy. Like many rural communities, it had a tradition of ribald and scurrilous songs that were performed at festivals such as harvest-home and weddings. These could be in the form of extempore verses that were aimed at another member of the company, who was expected to respond in kind.

The Romans took over the idea, applying it particularly to bawdy verses sung to the happy couple at their nuptials, though later the fescennine verses were cleaned up and made more urbane and sophisticated.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 23 Aug. 2008

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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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-fen1.htm
Last modified: 23 August 2008.