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shameless pleading

Figment

Dear Word Detective: Is there any “figment” other than “figment of imagination”? I have never seen the word used outside that phrase. — Allan Pratt.

Good question. I was thinking about “figment” earlier today. (I always think about things before I write about them, not that it shows in most instances.) Anyway, I realized that I’ve retained a weird mental association, no doubt forged in childhood, between “figment” and “Fig Newton” cookies, the tasty little fig bars made by Nabisco. The reason I’ve capitalized “Fig Newton” there is that the term is actually a trademark (though often used generically) owned by Nabisco. It turns out, I discovered while writing a book on trade names a few years ago, that the company went through a phase of naming their confections after towns in their local state of Massachusetts and, in this case, decided to honor the Boston suburb of Newton. Newton is a lovely town, but, as I said in my book, I was a bit disappointed that the inspiration wasn’t Isaac Newton, perhaps heralding a line of famous scientist cookies that might eventually include Copernicus Nut Clusters and Heisenberg Uncertainty Macaroons.

It’s true that nearly every use of the word “figment” I’ve been able to find in popular media has been in the phrase “figment of one’s imagination” or phrases substituting “hallucination,” “memory,” “mind,” and similar mental venues. “Figment” today is used as a loose synonym for “fantasy” or “hallucination,” a belief that something is true that clearly isn’t, or, less charitably, an attempt to imply a desired meaning where actual evidence is lacking (“Another attempt .? to read into prehistoric monuments ?. patterns and explanations which are simply figments of the observer’s imagination,” Nature, 1971).

In current usage “figment” is clearly a dismissive and sometimes pejorative term. When the word first appeared in English in the 15th century, however, it had a considerably broader and less loaded definition. “Figment” is derived from the Latin “figmentum,” something fashioned or created, from the verb “fingere,” meaning “to mold or fashion.” The original meaning of “figment,” now obsolete, was simply “something molded, fashioned or created,” usually in the form of something else, such as a model, statue or painting (“This Statue is become the?eternal God of Heaven and Earth .? though it be really a mere figment,” 1664).

Early on, however, “figment” was also used to mean specifically “a fictitious invention” or “falsehood,” a story or statement that was presented as true but was not (“It is a sin to lie, even for Gods cause, and to defend even his justice with false tales and figments,” 1639). This definition differs from the common use of “figment” today because it implies some intent to deceive in the origin of “figment,” and in fact early use of this sense included “figment” meaning “a fraudulent trick.”

By the early 17th century, however, the modern sense of “figment” meaning “a construct or perception of the mind that has no basis in reality; an invention” had arisen, and we began to speak of “figments” of the mind, imagination, etc. The earliest citation for the phrase “figment of imagination” listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Jane Eyre (1847): “The long dishevelled hair, the swelled black face, the exaggerated stature, were figments of imagination.” So modern use of “figment” is almost always in regard to some mental misapprehension or delusion, whether actual or implied.

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