Ornery fystes

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With respect to the recent discussion of "Ornery", there's a relevant passage in George Lippard's 1848 novel Paul Ardenheim, the Monk of Wissahikon:

The broom, that peculiar weapon of all lonely and afflicted women, from the trembling virgin who grasps it to immolate a spider to the injured wife who rears it to admonish a drunken husband — the Broom!  It was the sight of this formidable missile that made the pot-companions tremble. Their retreat became a route. With one brilliant attack, Betsy worried them over the grass plot and charged them through the gate.

"Now ye ornery fystes ever say tat house is hanted agin if ye dare!"

They went their ways, Jake cursing, Pete blowing and Chon endangering his blood vessels by a smothered fit of laughter.

"Te ornery fystes!" panted Betsy as she flung the broom away, and sank exhausted into a chair, beside the wondering Jacopo.

"Ornery fystes!" This phrase looks mysterious. The first word is a modification of "Ordinary" and is much used in the Land of Penn, to express the last extreme of worthlessness. A spavined horse; a Bank Director 'found out' in his little speculations; a lady of fashion, whose husband and lover come to fisty-cuffs, about her damaged reputation; a lawyer who pockets fees from both sides, and drives a smart trade between the Thief and the Bailiff; a sheriff elected to office by a certain party and sharing all the plunder with the hungry ones of the opposite party — these all, in Pennsylvania language are "ORNERY."

As to the cabalistic word, "Fyste" we know not whether it is German, Greek or Indian. Possibly it is Choctaw. It was once much in vogue in the German districts of Pennsylvania. It is said to have been applied in the first place, to those benevolent pilgrims, who journeying from the land of Plymouth Rock, enlightened the benighted Germans by a severe course of wooden nutmegs, horn flints and patent medicines.

"Tat Yankee fyste!" was the exclamation of a Berks County farmer who had been persuaded to purchase a Patent-Right of an Improved Wheel-barrow which was to go of itself; by gravitation as the Yankee candidly observed.

But those days are passed. New England from the fountain of her overflowing benevolence, no longer sends to ignorant Pennsylvania, her former goodly offering of Pedlars and Horse-Jockies. She sends us Preachers, Editors and Lawyers. They do not peddle — not they! Nor jockey? No, Sir ! Why our souls could not be saved, nor our minds enlightened, nor the course of Justice go forward, were it not for these Missionaries, sent to our benighted clime, by Old New England. In fact, every path that leads to eminence or pennies, is macadamized by flints from Plymouth Rock. They preach our sermons, they do our law, they publish our papers, they write our histories. Pennsylvania could not get on without them. And once a year they get together in some cozy hotel — as many of them as Society can spare — and amid a wilderness of chowder and punkin-pie, they drench themselves with Cider from Jersey and Blarney from Plymouth Rock. Persons there are, who pretend that New England keeps her Religion, her Intellect, her Liberality at Home, and only sends abroad her Fanaticism, her Stupidity and Meanness. These persons grossly err ; we all know that Pennsylvania like a worn out clock would stop forever, were she not wound up by a key, fashioned from the iron bolt of that New England gibbet on which they hung Quakers in good old times. Was it not a Boston Historian who told us the other day, that William Penn was only great, because he came of true blue Yankee stock ; a kind of Quaker mastodeon from the fossil region of Plymouth Rock?

The word "Fyste!" was once applied to the Pedlar and Jockey; now—

In this modern day, the word has undergone strange modifications. It has become a word of honor. It is no longer applied to the cheat, the blackguard and the vagabond. It is now used to designate the learned Judge who preaches Temperance from the Bench and sells licenses at the Back-Door. Or, the honorable Sheriff' who distributes "Tracts" before he is elected, and after his election pounces upon the possessions of the unfortunate debtor, feeding and gorging himself, even to the last shred, until you are reminded of a buzzard perched upon its festering prey. Or, the Politician who hungry for office, and sworn to have it at all hazards, prepares himself for his grave duties by a series of arduous exercises, such as Obscenity from the stump, Libel in the newspaper and Perjury everywhere.

These gentlemen are all known as "Fystes;" some of them, truth to tell, well deserve the full force of the vernacular, — " Ornery Fystes."



  1. David C said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 10:27 am

    Can you help me with the pronunciation of "Fystes?"

  2. Qafqa said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 10:48 am

    Knowing little about the Pennsylvania Dutch, my immediate association was with 'feist', the type of dog. Certainly insults where people are characterized as dogs are common, and variants like 'fyce' bring it still closer….

    [(myl) That could be. But note that the Wikipedia entry for feist dogs says that

    The word feist is described in Webster's Third New International Dictionary as from the obsolete word fysting meaning "breaking wind, in such expressions as fysting dog or fysting hound". Feist is defined as "1. chiefly dial: a small dog of uncertain ancestry…"

    And the OED has fist n.2

    Forms:  ME fyyst, ME–16, 18 fiste, 15–16 fiest, fyest, fyst(e, 18 Sc. feist, 16, 18 fist.
    1. A breaking wind, a foul smell, stink. Obs.

    So my money is on "ornery fyste" = "ordinary fart".]

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 11:43 am

    That's a weird way to spell "Wissahickon." I had thought it might be old-fashioned, but the n-gram viewer suggests that Wissahikon has almost always been a minority variant (often so rare as to be indistinguishable from the x-axis) and the only time it was ever the majority variant was the brief moment in the late 1840's when this book was published.

    [(myl) George Lippard seems to have been a somewhat weird dude. But his pal Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story called "Morning on the Wissahicon" (1844), so maybe they had a competition going to see who could publish the weirdest spelling of Wissahickon. I haven't looked for e.g. "Wissahikhon" or "Wissahiccon" or "Wissahikkon", but maybe the rest of them are Out There…]

  4. jan said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

    Maybe fyste is related to feisty? Etymology.com seems to suggest it is.

  5. Qafqa said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 1:27 pm

    Mark, that's even more awesome!

  6. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

    From the German translation of Joyce's Ulysses:

    "STATTLICH UND FEIST erschien Buck Mulligan am Treppenaustritt, ein Seifenbecken in Händen, auf dem gekreuzt ein Spiegel und ein Rasiermesser lagen. …"

    "feist" is almost better than the "plump" of the original; it's plump with attitude. Not inconceivable that it would be adapted to mean something like dude.

  7. John Lawler said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

    I believe this sense is cognate with (and may be borrowed from — or alternatively be the source of) French vesser 'to emit a silent fart' (opposed by péter 'to fart loudly'). These verbs are discussed very insightfully in Ann Daingerfield Zwicky's classic "Un Bouquet Français" (Zwicky et al. 1971:91-4).

    [(myl) From the OED's etymology, fist/fyste/feist seems resolutely Germanic:

    From this I would conclude that French vesser is a borrowing from Germanic rather than the other way around.]

  8. PaulB said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

    Chambers says that "feisty" comes from "fist" – a small, aggressive dog – which comes from "fisten", ME for "fart".

  9. Rubrick said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

    I'm curious whether "route" in "Their retreat became a route" is an accepted variant of the time, a 160-year-old eggcorn, or merely a transcription error.

    [(myl) I wondered the same thing. It's spelled that way in the original printed text, so if it's a transcription error, it took place in 1848.

    The OED for rout n.6 gives

    Forms:  15–16 rowte, 15–17 route, 15– rout, 16 rowt.

    suggesting that "route" in 1848 was just a mistake, either by the author or the printer.]

  10. Alex said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

    I always thought "ornery" meant stubborn and belligerent, not worthless. I was raised in a "Dutch" family in Ohio (they were German until WWI, and thereafter referred to themselves only as Dutch), so I'm surprised to see that Pennsylvania usage was so different. Or is it a time variation rather than a place variation?

    My great-grandmother (born 1904 in northwest Ohio to German-speaking parents) would have said that someone ornery was "agin everybody."

    [(myl) It seems to be an issue of both time and place. The OED gives this older sense for ordinary:

    4. Chiefly of a person: not distinguished by rank or position; of low social position; relating to, or characteristic of, the common people; common, vulgar; unrefined, low, coarse. In later use derogatory. Now U.S. regional and Caribbean.
    In American English this sense is now often expressed by the spelling ornery: see ornery adj.

    The citations (aside from DARE and the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage) end in 1800.]

  11. Victor Mair said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 7:16 pm

    I've often said, and have heard others say, "ornery (old) fart", so the parallel with "feist(y) / fyste" is very close. In my idiolect, this expression would usually be affectionate, or at most evince only slight annoyance.

    The Online Etymology Dictionary has a good entry on "feisty":


    From Heidi Krohne:


    Feisty: I originally always thought of it in the sense of being forward, gutsy, bold or daring (in it's positive way) and impudent or audacious in the negative sense.

    Reading the blog, however, I am very puzzled over more than one meaning.

    I never heard of a fystes dog and have no clue what that denotes.

    That story dating to 1840 and describing Pennsylvania/New England affairs is (1) obviously outdated English and (2) not sure if New England, Pennsylvania or a mix of local jargon.

    Since I have never been in either area, my only contact with "Pennsylvania Dutch" was a Colonel I shared a staff car with in Munich who surprised me when he rattled off in what I recognized as pure Schwaebisch German. He told me that he was born in PA and learned it on the streets when he grew up there.

    Checking various German dictionaries I found "of cheek", which rather goes with my idea of feisty, but I can't get the connection to "fat, stout, obese, plump, etc.". In the same vein, however, is mentioned "fat of venison", followed by Feistzeit – season of venison.

    Going to my doorstopper Webster it reads: "(from ME fist. flatus) (Going from this to a & b below is beyond me)

    (a) full of spirit, specifically lively, energetic, exuberant, etc.

    (b) quarrelsome, aggressive, belligerent."

    This a & b, however, seems to share positive & derogatory meanings.

    Other than the above you've got me stumped, and I am amazed how the meaning of the word changes from one dictionary to another.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

    Then there's the Canadian singer-songwriter, Feist.


    I've often wondered about her surname.

    Just looked it up now. Apparently it was first found in Austria and is derived from "St. Veit (in Latin, Vitus) who was the patron saint protecting against fire and lightning."


  13. D.O. said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 11:19 pm

    Also Russian colloquial бздеть (bzdet', to fart, fig. to be afraid). I had no idea that it might be connected to one of the themes of this post until read etymological connections with Greek and Lithuanian (myl subcomment to John Lawler).

  14. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 6:20 am

    "I believe this sense is cognate with (and may be borrowed from — or alternatively be the source of) French vesser 'to emit a silent fart' (opposed by péter 'to fart loudly')."

    So the French have two words for "fart"? What does this tell us about them?

  15. Victor Mair said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 6:37 am

    Since words for breaking wind in many languages might well be onomatopoeic from the get-go, it's not unlikely that some of them will *come out* sounding pretty much the same.

  16. Adrian said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 6:39 am

    "So the French have two words for "fart"? What does this tell us about them?"

    Why, because they have so few?

  17. Terry Hunt said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 11:32 am

    My initial thought on encountering "fyste" for the first time here, entirely unsupported by any etymological evidence, is that it might derive from 'Faust', who in the original Germanic legends was evidently a (small-'n') nonconformist with an antagonistic attitude to conventional society.

  18. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 4:03 pm

    "feist" in German not meaning plump? First an admission – I should really engage my brain before my keyboard. I had never looked the word up in the dictionary, and experience shows I am perfectly capable of misunderstanding words for decades.

    How easily "feist" could have been one of those. I probably, truth be told, only knew it from that one sentence.

    But now I open my PONS Großwörterbuch and the entry reads "feist, adj, fat". So at least somebody else thinks it means that.

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