I couldn't dig up any information on the phrase:

Fi on you

Meaning, as far as I recall, shame on you

Perhaps my search came up empty because that's not the correct spelling, but does anyone have more info on this term and it's origin?

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    Try "fie on you"
    – Xanne
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 3:53
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    Related to What's a modern equivalent of “fie on thee”?
    – KyleMit
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 4:01
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    "F..ck you" is probably the closest modern equivalent. "Fie on't, oh, fie!" can be loosely interpreted as "F...ck this bullshit!" (The latter is from Hamlet's first soliloquy).
    – Ricky
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 5:08
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    Since the F word was around in Roman times, way before Shakespeare, it is possible that Fie even then was a euphemism for that. Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 20:26
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    @YosefBaskin The f word was probably not around in Roman times; at least it’s not attested until the 13th century or so. It’s a word common to most Germanic languages, but the specific shift in meaning to the current English one is almost certainly post-Roman—though indeed pre-Shakespeare. Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 11:31

1 Answer 1


According to the OED, fie in the sense of "Fie on you" is not a verb or a noun, but an interjection. Here is the entry for that form of fie in The Compact Edition Oxford English Dictionary (1971):

Fie int. ... {ME fi, fy app. a. OF fi, fy (mod. F. fi) :—L. >, an imitation of the sound instinctively made on perceiving a disagreeable smell. Cf. ON (Da. fy, also fy skam dig fie shame to you ! Sw. fy), of similar origin. The ON may possibly be a joint source of the Eng. word, but the early instances either occur in translations from Fr. or imitate the Fr. construction fi de.} 1. An exclamation expressing, in early use, disgust or indignant reproach. No longer current in dignified language; said to children to excite shame for some unbecoming action, and hence often used to express the humorous pretence of feeling 'shocked'. Sometimes more fully Fie for shame! [Citations from 1297, 1330, and later omitted.]

The earliest instance of "fie on X" that the OED cites is from the York Plays: The Plays Performed by the Crafts Or Mysteries of York on the Day of Corpus Christi (1440 [according to OED]):

Pilate. Kyng! in þe deuyllis name, we! Fye upon hym, dastard!/ What! wenys þat wode warlowe ouere-wyn vs þus lightly?/ A begger of Bedlem, borne as a bastard,/ Nowe by Lucifer lath I þat ladde, I leue hym not lightly.

But there are other instances where fie seems still to be tied to the notion of reaction to bad smells, as in King Lear, act 4, scene 6:

Lear. ...The Fitchew, nor the soyled Horse goes too't with a more rioutous appetite: Downe from the waste they are Centaures, though Women all aboue: but to the Girdle do the Gods inherit, beneath is all the Fiends. There's hell, there's darkenes, there is the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption: Fye, fie, fie; pah, pah: Giue me an Ounce of Ciuet; good Apothecary sweeten my immagination: There's money for thee.

Gloster. O let me kisse that hand.

Lear. Here wipe it first, it smells of mortalitie.

Here, Lear seems to be using both fie and pah (which the OED defines briefly as "A natural exclamation of disgust") to express particular revulsion at the overwhelming stench of "the sulphurous pit"—and soon enough, of his own mortal hand.

As a child of post–Chuck Jones America, I always imagined that the sound instinctively made on perceiving a disagreeable smell was pew! (from the French le pew. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see fie bobbing along, in the OED's telling, at the confluence of Old French and Old Norse.

The word also appears in its original nostril-offending sense in the tale of "Jack and the Beanstalk." My impression as a child was that smelling the blood of an Englishman triggered a kind of Pavlovian drool effect in the giant—after all, he wanted to eat Jack (or at least Jack's bones, ground into a high-calcium meal). So for much of my life I thought that "Fee-fi-fo-fum!" meant something like "Yum-yum-yum-yum!" But it seems instead that the giant disliked the smell.

The Wikipedia article on Fee-fi-fo-fum is all over the place, but it does note another instance of fie in King Lear (this time in act 3, scene 4):

Edgar [as Tom o' Bedlam]. Childe Rowland to the darke Tower came,/ His word was still, fie, foh, and fumme,/ I smell the blood of a British man.

Earlier than the example in Lear is one that Wikipedia cites from Thomas Nashe, Have with You to Saffron-Walden (1596):

O! tis a precious apothegmaticall pedant, who will finde matter inough to dilate a whole daye of the first invention of Fy, fo, fum, I smell the bloud of an English-man; and if hee had a thousand pound, hee hath vowd to consume it everie doyt, to discover and search foorth certaine rare mathematicall experimentes; as for example, that of tying a flea in a chaine, (put in the last edition of the great Chronicle) which if by anie industrie hee could atchieve, his owne name beeing so generally odious throughout Kent and Christendome, he would presently transforme and metamorphize it from doctour Harvey to doctour Ty, (of which style there was a famous musition some few yeres since) resolving, as the last cast of his maintenaunce, altogether to live by carrying that flea, like a monster, up and downe the countrey; teaching it to doo trickes, Hey come aloft, Jack! like an ape over the chaine.

That, my friends, is a sentence.

Speaking of a Scandinavian connection to fie—or rather, to monsters that make instinctive sounds on perceiving a disagreeable smell, and in fact include those sounds in ritualized announcements of having detected human blood—the ogre in "Shortshanks," a Norwegian fairy tale collected by Peter Asbjørnson & Jørgen Moe and published in George Webbe Dasent, Popular Tales from the Norse (1859), expresses a strong revulsion for the smell of (Christian) human blood:

"Huf!" said the Ogre; "what a horrid smell of Christian man's blood!"

"Yes!" said the Princess, "I know there is, for a bird flew over the house with a Christian man's bone in his bill and let it fall down the chimney. I made all the haste I could to get it out again, but I dare say it's that you smell."

Similar scenarios play out in other stories in the collection, with a giant or a dragon in place of the ogre. If Dasent had been more aware of the original sense of fie, he might have had the ogre say that instead of huf. But in Dasent's defense, the word that appears in "Lillefort," (the original Norwegian version of "Shortshanks"), in Asbjørnsen & Moe, Norske Folkeeventyr (1850), second line from the top of page 136, is "Huf!" And elsewhere in that book, giants and trolls tend to say "Hutetu!" when they encounter the offensive odor of enterprising men.)


According to the OED, the interjection fie is an imitation of an instinctive sound made in reaction to a bad smell. This suggests a certain degree of similarity with the interjection pah, which is a less narrowly applicable natural exclamation of disgust. Oxford argues that English speakers habitually embedded the old interjective "Fie!" first in the more elaborate denunciation, "Fie for shame!" and subsequently in the more directed challenging "Fie upon you!"

Over the decades and centuries, the literal malodorousness that first drew the instinctive sound forth became sublimated into a metaphorical nose wrinkling at dastardly conduct. Only in the fairy tale incantation "fee-fi-fo-fum" does the fie (arguably) continue to operate in the original, instinctive way—albeit as an expression of olfactory umbrage taken by an English-speaking but otherwise not very English giant.

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    It’s worth noting to the OED quote that “Fy skam dig!” is not really used in modern Danish—it’s very old-fashioned and quaint. “Fy skamme!” is somewhat more common, but still old-fashioned. Reduplicated fy-fy is still quite common, but slightly different in meaning: it’s a playful, somewhat taunting reproval not unlike “naughty naughty!” in English (preferably said with an annoyingly wagging finger). It’s most commonly used for unpleasant sensory input, though, where it’s equivalent to føj; alliterative fy for fanden (Sw./No. fy fan) is a very common strong expression of → Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 11:29
  • → disgust at a smell, taste, or unsavoury notion, not unlike “blech” or “yuck” or “urgh”. It’s also worth noting that Da./No. (h)uf(f) or Sw. usch is another very common expression of disgust whose ‘extended’ version uff da ‘uff then’ is apparently also used by Scando-Americans. Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 11:29

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