Dear Word Detective: I looked up the word “fancy” in search and got plenty of uses of it but no etymology. Have you considered what a strange word it is? You can fancy something, or someone. You can wear fancy dress. You can be fancy-free. You can also eat tinned salmon (fancy) or tinned tuna (fancy); in fact various tinned things from grocers are described as “fancy.” Why? In addition, you may be a dog-lover, or a cat person, but if you keep homing-pigeons, you are a “pigeon fancier.” — Graham Chambers.
That’s a good question, but you left out the particular “fancy” that I would probably blurt out in free-association psychotherapy, which is “Fancy Feast,” a heavily-advertised premium “tinned” cat food here in the US. The true import of its name finally dawned on me just last year. Cats love Fancy Feast until they hate it, which they invariably begin to do after about the third can of a 24-can case. So it sits on the shelf while I cook cheeseburgers for the little nippers, and a week later we give it another shot, when it will, we hope, again strike their “fancy.”
The fox, goes a quotation usually ascribed to the Greek poet Archilocus, knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. The one big thing to know about “fancy” in all its senses is that “fancy” is, etymologically, the same word as “fantasy,” simply in a shortened form (which was preceded by the transitional forms “fantsy” and “phant’sy” in the 15th and 16th centuries).
The root of “fantasy” was the Greek word “phantasia,” which meant “appearance, perception, imagination.” Filtered through Latin and Old French, “fantasy” first appeared in English in the 15th century with those same senses, and soon developed its modern meanings of “figment of the imagination,” “unsupported notion” and “daydream.” But “fantasy” also carried the meaning “whim, notion or desire,” and when the shortened form “fancy” began to be considered a separate word in the 16th century, it took on this sense of “whimsical notion” or “changeable mood,” an idea or preference of the moment rather than a matter of conviction. By the late 16th century, “fancy” had specifically come to mean “taste, preference in matters of art or appearance,” which led to “fancy” meaning “affection for or interest in.” As an adjective, “fancy” took on the meaning of “varied or enhanced according to fancy” (as opposed to “plain”), and thus anything gussied up with extra care, showy details or expensive materials was labeled “fancy.” Voila, “fancy tuna” and such concoctions as “Fancy Feast.”
As a verb, “fancy” followed the development of the noun, particularly in the sense of “to have a liking or affection for,” thus giving us “pigeon-fanciers,” et al. (There is, in fact, a magazine called “Cat Fancy” here in the US.) Early on, “fancy” was also used to mean “to fall in love with another person,” but today it has calmed down to meaning only “romantically interested in” (“Carlyle breakfasted with Moore … and fancied him,” 1838). Interestingly, the adjective “fancy-free” originally, in the 16th century, meant “free from amorous entanglements,” (reflecting that serious “love” use of “fancy”), but now it’s simply used to mean “carefree” (as in the phrase “footloose and fancy-free”).