13

The phrase to flay a fox occurs many times in English translations of Rabelais. According to many sources, it means to vomit.

For example,

enter image description here

A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose (1796)

and

enter image description here

A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge (1937)

These and other sources also mention the variant to flea a fox.

Further, Partridge mentions whip the cat as an alternative (although I'm dubious given that whip the cat seems to have a completely independent meaning).

Here are some examples of flay the fox in Rabelais:

At the time of the paroxysm he used to flay a fox by way of antidote.

(Pantagruel Book 4, Ch. 44)

The definition meaning "to vomit" is corroborated by the above passage, as well as by the following passage, where a link is presumably drawn between flaying foxes and vomiting:

And all those fine folk were soon puking in front of everyone else as though they had been flaying foxes.

(Pantagruel Book 1, Ch. 12)

This passage suggests that the origin of the phrase comes from the actual practice of flaying (that is, peeling the skin off of) foxes, a presumably vomit-inducing activity. I've noticed that some translators of Rabelais actually use "skin the fox" over "flay the fox," suggesting removal of skin as the practice which originated the phrase.

But I am perplexed by the following passage, where it is not immediately obvious that flay the fox means "vomit":

With this he took him by the throat, saying to him, Thou flayest the Latin; by St. John, I will make thee flay the fox, for I will now flay thee alive.

(Pantagruel Book 1, Ch. 6)

Further, Partridge's listing of whip the cat as an alternative suggests that flay should be understood as "whip", rather than "peeling the skin off of", contradicting the above folk etymology. Further, we have many animal-beating idioms which, on analogy, suggests the "whip" etymology over the "peeling the skin off of" etymology. For example flogging the monkey and beating a dead horse.

flay

(1) Peel the skin off (a corpse or carcass):

(2) Whip or beat (someone) so harshly as to remove their skin

By googling I have also found a rather intriguing definition which reads:

flay (or flay the fox), verb, phr. (old). To vomit: "from the subject to the effect," says Cotgrave; "for the flaying of so stinking a beast is like enough to make them spue that feel."

Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, Anonymous

This suggests that to flay, more generally, can mean to vomit. It also corroborates the "removal of skin" folk etymology that I gave. Presumably "Cotgrave" refers to this Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611). But I found no entry for flay. It should be here, but isn't.

My questions are the following:

Q1. Where did the meaning of to flay the fox as "to vomit" come from? It likely has to do with peeling the fur off of foxes, but is this really gruesome enough to warrant an idiom about vomiting?

Q2. What justifies the variant flea the fox? Is flea perhaps derived from a pronunciation of flay?

Q3. How does one reconcile the surely correct "vomit" interpretation with the final perplexing quote from Rabelais (the full context of which can be found here)? [Feel free to ignore.]

Given the mystery surrounding there's more than one way to skin a cat, I'm pessimistic there will be a definite answer to the etymology question, but I'm interested to hear people's thoughts.

  • 4
    I only offer a possible insight to Q3. Nowadays, in a situation like that presented in the quote, someone being so threatening might say "I'm gonna make you shit your pants" to mean I'm going to make you very afraid. I'm not saying that that's necessarily what this means but simply suggesting you may have a stacking of idioms. Making someone vomit may be idiomatic of something else—an idiom that's being referred to with the idiom "flay the fox." Just a thought. – Benjamin Harman Jul 9 '16 at 1:54
  • 1
    @BenjaminHarman, wow I didn't even think of that. Seems very plausible! – GoldenGremlin Jul 9 '16 at 1:57
  • 3
    Mari-Lou A Law: The more thoughtful and well researched a question is, the more unlikely it will do well if posted during the weekend. You've practically done all the work yourself. – Mari-Lou A Jul 9 '16 at 7:02
  • 2
    Around Tudor times, a new connotation arose in the phrases ‘to hunt or catch the fox’ (to get drunk). There is even a connection between drunkenness and the crafty nature of the fox, based on a prose satire written by Thomas Nashe, an Elizabethan poet and playwright. In his Pierce Penniless, His supplication to the Divell (1592), he described the types of drunk- enness you might encounter, comparing their characteristics with animals, finishing with the eighth type of drunkard, who is ‘fox-drunk when crafty-drunk, as many of the Dutchmen be, that will never bargain but when they are drunk’ – user66974 Jul 9 '16 at 12:44
  • 2
    @Josh61, I refer to Slang and its Analogues Past and Present in my question. But I think you're dead on in your comments! – GoldenGremlin Jul 9 '16 at 13:15
9

This isn't really an answer either—just another piece of information that is too long to fit in a comment. One of the earliest English slang dictionaries I'm aware of is A New Canting Dictionary: Comprehending All the Terms, Antient and Modern Used in the Several Tribes of Gypies, Beggars, Shoplifters, Highwaymen, Foot-Pads, and all other Clans of Cheats and Villains (1725). It has these entries for fox and fox'd:

FOX, a sharp cunning Fellow. Also Drunk ; as, He has caught a Fox, he is very Drunk.

FOX'D, Drunk.

If a person who has "caught a fox" (in the English slang of 1725) is very drunk, might it not follow that a person who is vomiting the residue of his drink is "flaying" that same fox?

Several searches of Google Books for various forms of "flay a fox" turned up nothing beyond the Rabelais translation that Silenus mentions and a handful of dictionaries that cite the phrase in connection with its slang meaning.

As long as I'm here, I might as well add that I don't find very believable the theory that "to flay a fox" means "to vomit" simply because flaying a fox is such a revolting operation. We are, after all, talking about an era when people set dogs on chained-up bears or bulls for entertainment. The Wikipedia article on bear baiting cites an instance in which "a pony with an ape tied to its back was baited." According to a spectator at that event "with the screaming of the ape, beholding the curs hanging from the ears and neck of the pony, is very laughable." I can't imagine that flaying a dead fox would be more nauseating than attending one of these popular amusements that involved tormenting live animals until they died.

  • This is very good information! A story is starting to emerge. It suggests that caught a fox and foxed meaning "be drunk" was (conceptually or etymologically) prior to flay the fox (meaning "vomit"), which was in turn prior to flay generally meaning "to vomit". I agree that the folk etymology I gave involving skinning a fox is unlikely. The idea that the phrase is a spin-off of an earlier idiom makes much more sense. By the way, here's another example of a gruesome practice from the 17th C: fox tossing, or throwing live foxes into the air (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fox_tossing). – GoldenGremlin Jul 9 '16 at 12:03
7

Apparently, in the so-called "dark ages", women vomited foxes. Well... it looks like a fox to me, or a rabbit.

enter image description here

Unfortunately, I couldn't find the source of this particular image, which is an example of medieval marginalia.

Generally speaking, marginalia simply means anything written or drawn into the margins of a book. In the medieval context, marginalia is understood to mean images that exist outside or on the edge of a page’s main program. Collectors Weekly

Unlike the fox I lack his cunning, and I was curious to understand why the cant term, fox, should mean “to be drunk”; Charles Richardson in his A New English Dictionary of the English Language (1836) shed some much needed light.

FOX, v. To deceive, to entrap, to ensnare; and thus, to intoxicate, to make drunk

It also included the following citation from The works of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher
Beaumont (1584-1616) Fletcher (1579-1625)

Clow. So so: as long as we kept the Mop-headed butter-boxes sober; marry when they were drunk, then they grew buzards : You should have them reel their heads together, and deliberate; Your Dutchman, indeed when he's foxt, is like a Fox, For when he's sunk in drink, quite earth to a Man's thinking, 'Tis full Exchange time with him, then he's sublest; but your Switzer, 'twas nothing to cheat him.

The Fair Maid of the Inn

Q3 Consequently, the final perplexing quote from Rabelais means the following

Pantagruael, the protagonist, meets a young scholar and casually enquires where he is from. The reply spewed by the scholar is nonsensical and infuriates Pantagruel who cries, “What devilish language is this? By the Lord, I think thou art some kind of heretick”. As the conversation progresses, it becomes clear among those who assist the encounter, that the young scholar is feigning to be a Parisian, he is only a Limousin “... because he disdaineth the common manner of speaking.”

Thus when Pantagruel cries: “Thou flayest the Latin” he means the pretentious youth with his highfalutin speech is slaughtering the Latin language, (maybe the upper class in Paris spoke in Latin) “... by St. John I will make thee flay the fox” he swears he will make him spit out (spew = vomit) the truth, “for I will now flay thee alive” because he will beat him alive.

  • Very nice find! Seems like a visual rendering of the flay the fox idiom, reminiscent of the painting Netherlandish Proverbs (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netherlandish_Proverbs), which visually depicts literal interpretations of idioms. The new question is whether such visual depictions of idioms was a common form of joke for medieval artists and scribes!? – GoldenGremlin Jul 9 '16 at 12:01
  • @Silenus I'm sorry I couldn't do better. Sven has pulled out some interesting facts though. And I know Josh61 is beavering away on his answer. (visible to 10K users) – Mari-Lou A Jul 9 '16 at 12:06
  • Looks like Josh isn't going to undelete his answer. I suppose it's too late, but there are some interesting notes, and he attempted to answer the French question, which no one has so far ... shrugs. – Mari-Lou A Jul 10 '16 at 8:41
  • It would have been 'scholars' (students) who spoke Latin, rather than the upper class. Educated people from different countries communicated with one another in Latin. – Kate Bunting Oct 10 '16 at 8:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.