Patients of Jobs.

Dear Word Detective: I grew up (in the northeast) with my dad using the word “finagle” quite liberally and usually in reference to how he cleverly obtained something. I’ve found the word in the dictionary, however have not been able to come up with the origin of the word. Any ideas? — Wayne Kulick.

Ideas? I don’t fiddle with “ideas,” buckaroo. I deal with cold, hard facts. If it’s “ideas” you want, drop a line to that “creative” crowd at Apple. They could probably whip up an “iOrigin” for you with sleek, rounded contours and the voice of Bono making the Indo-European roots sound like Celtic poetry. But then the battery would die, and you’d have to take it to an Apple Store and endure the sneers of the trendoid twits in the black t-shirts. So you’re better off with me.

“Finagle” is a fine old word, and, as a native of the northeastern US myself, I remember my parents using it as well. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), “finagle” is actually in widespread use throughout the US, and is spelled a variety of ways, including “fanigle,” “finigal,” and, presumably among the high-falutin’ crowd, “phenagle.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “finagle” as “To use dishonest or devious methods to bring something about; … to scheme, to get (something) by trickery.” The American Heritage Dictionary is similarly disapproving: “To obtain or achieve by indirect, usually deceitful methods… to cheat; swindle.”

But while the element of outright dishonesty is definitely sometimes part of “finagling,” I would suggest that the usual use of the word carries the implication of bending, perhaps twisting, but not breaking the rules. Crooked stockbrokers may “finagle” with schemes that pauperize their clients, but your average “finagler” is just looking for an angle, an insider’s discount on storm windows or use of the company truck after work. “Finagle” to me is about clever persuasion, not vulgar fraud.

As is so often the case with colorful words, the exact origin of “finagle,” which first appeared in American English in the 1920s, is a bit cloudy. It has been traced to the old English dialect word “fainaigue,” meaning “to cheat, renege (especially in a card game) or to shirk work,” but at that point the trail goes cold. An English word similar in meaning and superficially similar in form, “faineant” (meaning “one who does nothing, an idler”), derives from an old French compound of “fait” (“he does”) and “neant” (“nothing”), so there may be a clue there. It’s also interesting that the original spelling of “renege” (from the Latin “re,” again, plus “negare,” to deny) in English was “reneague,” which might imply that “fait” plus “neague” (perhaps adding up to “he reneges”) might be hiding somewhere in the family tree of “finagle.”

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