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Fee-fi-fo-fum;

I smell the blood of an Englishman.

Be he alive or be he dead,

I'll grind his bones to make my bread.

Joseph Jacobs, Jack and the Beanstalk (1890)

I've read about the origin of 'Fee-fi-fo-fum' but what does it actually mean?

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It sounds like a conjugation. What language does this giant speak? –  Peter Shor Jul 19 '12 at 12:57
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@Peter Shor: Do you not have "Jack and the Beanstalk" in the US? If so, what does the Americanised giant say? ("Hanky-panky! I smell Yankee!" ?? :) –  FumbleFingers Nov 13 '12 at 22:29
    
It's also a hip-hop dance song by Candy Girls, wherein it's used as nonsense rhythm, almost a placeholder. –  Chris Nov 13 '12 at 22:46
    
@FumbleFingers: of course we do. I should have put a smiley beside my comment. –  Peter Shor Nov 13 '12 at 23:11
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@Peter Shor: Doh! [slaps forehead]. I'm a bit slow sometimes. But it did seem at least feasible there might be an American version, since I discovered here on ELU that you guys have your own "version" of the Harry Potter books. –  FumbleFingers Nov 13 '12 at 23:26

6 Answers 6

up vote 16 down vote accepted

It's a nonsense phrase, developed by the writer of the old English fairytale "Jack and the Beanstalk". It is usually expressed as fee-fi-fo-fum and it has no meaning or relevance besides the fact that it makes a neat couplet designed to strike terror into the listener's heart. As a child hearing this story, I always imagined the giant stomping his feet to the beat of fee-fi-fo-fum and making the ground shake and poor Jack's knees tremble.

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Wikipedia covers the meaning well and has this to say about Jack the Giant Killer:

Neither Jack or his tale are referenced in English literature prior to the eighteenth century, and his story did not appear in print until 1711. It is probable an enterprising publisher assembled a number of anecdotes about giants to form the 1711 tale.

The article mentions that in William Shakespeare’s play, King Lear (written between 1603 and 1606), Edgar exclaims:

Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.

The article goes on to explain:

The verse in King Lear makes use of the archaic word "fie", used to express disapproval. This word is used repeatedly in Shakespeare's works, King Lear himself shouting, "Fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!" and the character of Mark Antony (in Antony and Cleopatra) simply exclaiming "O fie, fie, fie!" The word "fum" has sometimes been interpreted as "fume". Formations such as "fo" and "foh" are perhaps related to the expression "pooh!", which is used by one the giants in Jack the Giant-Killer; such conjectures largely indicate that the phrase is of imitative origin, rooted in the sounds of flustering and anger.

However, King Lear isn't the first work in which the phrase appears. English dramatist Thomas Nashe in 1596 wrote in Have With You to Saffron-Walden the passage:

O, tis a precious apothegmaticall Pedant, who will finde
matter inough to dilate a whole daye of the first
inuention of Fy, fa, fum, I smell the bloud of an
Englishman

So it seems that writers have puzzled over the origins of this chant and what it means for over four centuries!

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How about Fee, Fye, Pho, ƒum? Fee being the lesser of the Golden Section (or a value of 0.6180339), Fye being the greater of the Golden Section (or a value of 2.6180339), Pho being a shorthand for Fibonacci or Phyllotaxis, and ƒum being the word sum when written in old script.
The giant was studying advanced mathematics, because what else does one do when set upon by society and made an outcast? He was trying to better himself through education. I suspect that he just got frustrated when he was deep inn thought trying to remember or make sense of the equation and one of those people who regularly upbraid him, tresspassed and interrupted his studies yet again.

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That's just beautiful. The story now makes sense to me. –  Chris Cudmore Jul 18 '12 at 17:32

There is a quite similar phrase in Russian fairy-tales. Instead of a giant, it's said by a wicked witch and reads like

"Foo-foo-foo, I smell the russian soul!"

(or "russian odour". Russian word "дух (dookh)" means both spirit/soul and odour) with various endings: "A russian bone came to my home", "I'll roast you and eat you and roll and wallow in your bones" etc.

Here "Foo" is a sound of disgusting and also a sound of someone smelling something (like horse's snorting).

Maybe both english and russian phrases have a common origin - from some ancient source?

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"Fee Fi Fo Fum" is an old English galdr charm based on the rune Fehu. Ettins (Etyn, jotun, etc) where monsterous giants who were well known (in the mythology) to use galdr magic (vocally sung magic chants). The Fehu Galdr in four parts, such as "Fee Fi Fo Fum", is used for finding what is being searched for. As the poem indicates, the ettin was searching for the "Englishman" and using this chant to aid in the search.

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While curious indeed, might you have a citation for that? –  tchrist Feb 5 '13 at 0:51
    
The word is "monstrous". :) –  Ian Atkin 2 days ago

Fee fi fo fum...

Fief I (have) foe (you must be) fum(bled foolishly).

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protected by Will Hunting Nov 13 '12 at 21:40

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