Dear Word Detective: So dogs “fetch,” women are “fetching,” and ideas can be “far-fetched.” Are all these related? If so, I think calling a woman “fetching” might be insulting. — Barney Johnson.
Well, some dogs fetch. Our two seem unclear on the concept. Neither Pokie nor Brownie will fetch a stick in the usual “chase it and bring it back” sense of “fetch.” Pokie realized years ago that sticks are rarely edible, so she doesn’t even look up when one flies by. Brownie will chase a stick with delight, sometimes even catching it in mid-air. (Yay Brownie!) But then, her work (as she sees it) being done, she retires to the shade of the nearest tree to chew her prize into little bits of wood. If I walk over and try to retrieve it from her, she laughs (yes, Brownie laughs) and runs away with it. Maybe I should try throwing the can opener across the lawn and see what happens.
All three of the senses of “fetch” you mention are indeed related, and all derive from the basic sense of the verb “to fetch,” which is “to go and get something or someone, or to cause that thing or person to come to you.” Interestingly, while there is only one verb “to fetch” in English, there are three noun forms of “fetch,” only one of which is related to the “bring it to me” verb. Apart from the basic sense of “the act of fetching,” this noun can also mean “a contrivance or trick” (“It is no ingenious fetches of argument that we want,” 1858), an expanse of open water, such as a bay, or an indrawn breath or difficulty breathing.
The two nouns unrelated to the “go get it” verb are “fetch” as a simple dialectical variation of “fish,” and “fetch” meaning “the apparition, double, or wraith of a living person” (although this may be a form of “fetch-life,” an old term for a spirit supposedly sent to “fetch” the soul of a dying person).
Meanwhile, back at the verb “to fetch,” our modern English word is drawn from the Old English “fetian,” meaning “to go and get.” Further back than that, things get murky, but the ultimate source was probably the Germanic root “fat” meaning “to hold.”
Most of the senses of “to fetch” in use today involve “bringing” in some sense, often figuratively, as in the use of “fetch” to mean “to sell for a certain price” (“The insolent dog fetched only five dollars at the yard sale”) or “to draw or derive” (“To fetch a parallel case out of Roman history,” 1806). Another figurative use, appearing in the early 17th century, was the use of “fetch” to mean “to move to interest, to attract” (“Another sign of his cleverness was the exploiting of the psycho-analytical rigmarole, which will fetch 100’s of earnest imbeciles,” Aldous Huxley, 1931). By the 19th century this also had developed into the sense of “alluring” that we use in relation to attractive people (far enough removed from the “dog” sense, I would say, not to be insulting).
“Far-fetched,” when it first appeared in the late 16th century, simply meant “fetched from afar, exotic” (“Indian pearles be greatest and more desired as being far fetched,” 1586). By the 17th century, “far-fetched” had taken on the more negative connotation, applied to an idea, argument or story, of “not easily believed, strained, unlikely” (“Far-fetched ideas respecting English society,” Anthony Trollope, 1869).