It’s that time again — time to select a word at random then do a column about it. This year’s word is “fop.”
Luckily for fop, my selection came from the American Heritage Dictionary since many dictionaries don’t list it. Nelson Canadian, New Century, Canadian Oxford, and Johnson all ignore fop.
This is likely because many dictionaries contain only words currently in use. Fop isn’t exactly obsolete, but isn’t used today either. Johnson, an old dictionary published in 1756, is filled with standard English words and fop would have been on the same level as slang in those days.
Oxford (OED) dates the first known use to 1529 when it meant, “to play the fool.” By 1672, now in noun form, it referred to, “one foolishly attentive to appearance, dress, or manners; a dandy, an exquisite.” Today’s meaning is the same: “A vain, affected man who is preoccupied with clothes and manners.”
Fop originated in Middle English as foppe. Its ultimate origin may be fobben (to cheat). Fobben, a verb, is also Middle English.
OED’s definition incorporates dandy and exquisite. Dandy, first heard in 1780, meant then and means now, “One who studies to dress elegantly and foolishly.” An exquisite, in 1819, meant, “One who is overnice in dress.” Oxford offers a third synonym for fop — “coxcomb.” In 1756, this meant, “a simpleton; a fop.”
Slang and Euphemisms outdoes Oxford and lists 14 synonyms for fop, including Adonis, beau, dink, popinjay, blood, and coxcomb.
From fop, we got foppery (1546), foppish (1605), and fopdoodle (1664). Foppery and foppish both mean “foolishness; dandyism; a foolish action.” Used as adjectives, these words mean, “having the characteristics of a fop.” A fopdoode is a simpleton.
In Act II, scene v, of Shakespeare’s, The Merchant of Venice (1596), Shylock says, “Lock up my doors .../Nor gaze on Christian fools with varnish’d faces/Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter/My sober house.”
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish writer, playwright, and poet, wrote his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, about a young London fop. Wilde, and those he hung out with, including the artist, Janes Whistler (1834-1903), were themselves considered fops, although they were euphemistically called “aesthetes” — those who were part of the aesthetic movement, also known as “art for art’s sake.”
John Ruskin (1819-1900), writer and art critic, once wrote of a Whistler painting, “I never expected to have a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”
In Dorian Gray, Wilde uses another word meaning fop. “Delicate lace ruffles fell over the lean yellow hands that were so laden with rings ... He had been a macaroni of the eighteenth century.” Beginning in 1764, macaroni meant fop. This usage is now obsolete.
In our time, Wladziu Valentino Liberace (1919-1987), known to us simply as Liberace, would have been called a fop had he lived in the 19th century. But, instead, Liberace was referred to as “flamboyant,” or, as having “a lavish sense of showmanship” (Biographical Encyclopedia).
It seems that people don’t change, although labels do.