Friday, June 19, 2009

WOTD: Fitt

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost three months since my last Word of the Day — that really has become a misnomer, hasn’t it? But here I am with a new one, fulfilling the promise I made last year that “one of these days I’ll get around to something genuinely English, ab origine.” In today’s installment, I’m looking at the word fitt, familiar enough to most medievalists but probably unknown to anybody else. It’s a word I tend to take for granted, but it caught my attention again in couple of posts I was reading on the subject of Beowulf, here and here (and a tip of the hat to Unlocked Wordhoard for these). It’s a word of very limited use, part of a specialized academic nomenclature, but hey, when has that ever stopped me before? :)

So what exactly is a fitt? With its double terminal stop, it’s a rather strange-looking word for English, isn’t it? The word refers to a section of medieval Germanic verse, basically the equivalent of the Latinate canto. More on that in a moment, but first, to clarify the meaning and source of the word:

Like all the longer Old English poems, Beowulf is divided into sectional divisions that were in all likelihood denoted by the term fitt ‘fitt,’ pl. *fitta. [Footnote: This is to be deduced from the Latin preface to the Heliand, which states that the author ‘omne opus per vitteas distinxit, quas nos lectiones vel sententias possumus appellare’ (‘divided the whole work into fitts, which we can call “readings” or “passages”) [...] [1]

As you can see by the footnote above, fitts weren’t limited to verse in Old English but were also present in the literature of other Germanic languages, as in the Old Saxon Heliand. Fitts were sometimes delineated by punctuation, sometimes with numerals, sometimes by elaborately decorative initial capitals. Other times, one has to deduce where one fitt ends and another commences. Fitts often ended with general statements of summary, reflection, or wisdom [2], as for example in the advice concluding fitt 35 of Beowulfsibb æfre ne mæg wiht onwendan þám ðe wel þenceð (“kinship can never aught pervert in him who rightly thinks”).

Coming back to canto, as many of you will know, this too is a word denoting a section in a long poem. It comes to us through Italian from the Latin cantare “to sing”. A fitt, it transpires, seems to show precisely the same derivation, but on the Germanic branch of the Indo-European Stammbaum. There, the immediate source would appear to be Old English fittan “to sing”. It appears to me not to be related to fitt “strife, stuggle”, though some have claimed it is. OE fitt “poem, song” is attested only four times, and it was not until Chaucer that the word fitt was used in the same sense as canto (in The Tale of Sir Thopas, there spelled “fit”).

But the more common OE word for “to sing” was singan; so where might fittan have come from? I think there are two possibilities, both metaphorical — and I’m not sure which one I favor:

(I) A phonologically similar Old High German word, fizza “yarn, skein, hank (of thread)”, suggests that singing could have been related to the spinning of a yarn (= a tale). Cognate to this are Middle High German vitzen and Old Norse fitja “to web, knit, weave”. [3]

(II) Alternatively, the Old Norse fet “pace, step”, secondarily “foot (as of a poem), a part of a poem” — one must assume related to fótr “foot” — suggests the possibility of singing while walking, measuring out a poem (or other oral literature) at or by the pace of walking, etc.

But these theories are really just speculation. Various dictionaries suggest the possibility of one or the other (or both), sometimes with certainty, sometimes not. In the end, I think we must admit that one can only go back so far before the vagaries of linguistic change become lost in the haze of history. Arguing backward, we just make the best fitt we can.

[1] Klaeber, Friedrich. Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. 4th ed. by R.D. Fulk, et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008, p. xxxiii.

[2] Loc. cit., and xxxv. [The translation of the passage that follows is Benjamin Thorpe’s.]

[3] R.D. Fulk, one of the editors of the most recent edition of the Klaeber Beowulf, has an article on this subject: “The origin of the numbered sections in Beowulf and in other Old English poems.” Anglo-Saxon England 35 (2006): 91–109. There, inter alia, he talks about the possibility of a derivation from the OHG fizza.


  1. Fortunately you didn't look into what modern Swedish fitta means. ;)

  2. It’s a good thing I wasn’t drinking anything, or I might have spit it all over the monitor laughing. Do you know the etymology of Swedish fitta? I’m wondering whether it’s related to Italian figa (with the same meaning). At first blush, one wouldn’t necessarily expect Swedish and Italian to be anything more than the most distant cousins, but the two forms are close enough to raise an eyebrow.

  3. I should add that Italian figa is a northern dialectal form of the more common fica. That’s what happens when you rely on your memory and post a comment without going back to the reference books. :)

  4. Well, according to

    "At least since the early 16th century and probably much older. Of disputed origin, but most likely related to fett ("fat", noun) in some way. See also Finnish vittu."

  5. If true, that would make the similarity to the Italian nothing more than coincidence — which I suppose is what we should have suspected. The Italian means “fig” — why? I think I’d better leave that to your imagination! I don’t suppose you have figs in Scandinavia, do you?

    At some point, I may have to write a post on medieval obscenities. I bet that would bring in some visitors! :)

  6. No, figs are not native to these northern lands ;)

  7. I remain croggled at a discussion of this word that fails to mention "The Hunting of the Snark."

  8. But David, that’s just where you come in! And thanks! I didn’t mention that poem because I’m really not terribly familiar with Lewis Carroll. Heresy, I know. I think I must have read “The Hunting of the Snark” at some point, as well as “Jabberwocky” and some other verse. But the Alice books are no more than a rumor to me (and a Disney film, probably a poor substitute). I note now that Carroll uses Chaucer’s spelling in his poem.

    By the way, speaking of etymology and Lewis Carroll’s “nonsense” verse, I’m reminded that Eric Partridge has a very intriguing essay, “The Nonsense Words of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll”, in Here, There and Everywhere: Essays upon Language (1950). In the essay, he essays to demonstrate that many of Carroll’s coinages are not such nonsense after all. There may well be others, but this is the only serious philological examination of “Jabberwocky” and “The Hunting of the Snark” that I’ve come across.

  9. OT, but will you provide a review of Languages, Myths and History at some point in the future? Please?

  10. Jon, yes indeed I will, and I’m glad to hear you’re interested. I am reading this book with special interest since I am teaching on the same topic this summer. Keep an eye out here on my blog, and I will definitely be sharing my thoughts on Dr. Solopova’s new book.

  11. Harm J. Schelhaas6/24/2009 8:30 PM

    Searching my mind finally brought out where I had encountered the term fit (so spelled) first: In Richard Adams' The Plague Dogs, divided in ten such fits, numbered but untitled (as they should be).

    Still chuckling at David Bratman's "croggled".

  12. Interesting, Harm. I haven’t ever read Plague Dogs, though it’s been in the back of my mind to do so for years.

  13. Harm J. Schelhaas6/27/2009 8:08 PM

    You should read it. It's a good story, evocative of the Cumbrian landscape and full of sub-fusc references to English literature (and other arts), including a mention of Saruman as a model for socially unadjusted behavior.

  14. That’s certainly good enough for me. Consider it on my list, then!