You can usually spot them by the ears.
Dear Word detective: I recently heard an elderly gentleman (from the rural South) refer to a dog I know as a “feist.” He said a feist (pronounced as in “feisty”) is a dog who likes to chase squirrels. I told a friend this story, and she said that she had heard the term used to refer to a dog of mixed breed. Do you know anything about this, and the derivation of the word? — Betsy Taylor.
Reading your question rang a very small, distant bell somewhere way back in the cobwebbed recesses of my mind, so evidently I have heard “feist” in relation to dogs somewhere before. Columns such as this, however, are not built of small, distant bells. I am very glad, therefore, that the folks at the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) are on the ball. I’m even gladder, inasmuch as the DARE project is a work-in-progress and not yet complete, that your query fell within the part of the alphabet (A through H) covered in the two volumes of DARE that have already been published.
According to DARE, “feist” means “a small dog of mixed breed; a cur.” “Feist” is chiefly heard in the American South, and can also be spelled “fice,” “fycte,” “fist,” and at least a dozen other ways. “Feist” (we’ll stick with the most common spelling here) is, surprisingly (to me, at least), a very old word. The first citation (for “foist”) reported by DARE is from George Washington’s diary in 1770 (“A small foist looking yellow cur.”). Another citation, from the journal Verbatim in 1977, defines “feist” as a “noisy and contentious, dyspeptic little dog.” Enthusiastic and nearly continuous barking seems to be integral to the notion of a “feist,” and although squirrel-chasing is not specifically mentioned in any of DARE’s citations, it would seem a logical part of any respectable feist’s repertoire. The word “feist” comes, incidentally, from the archaic English word “fist,” meaning “to break wind,” the same root that gave us “feisty,” meaning “spirited” or “plucky.” There’s something to consider next time you hear Ross Perot labeled “feisty.”