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I thought I knew the correct definition but now I was told I'm using it wrong. I was trying to describe a certain (rescue) dogs personality to someone and I said that he can be a bit feisty when playing and when getting him out of the kennel and at times will snap and try to bite. What I was meaning is that he can be a bit nervous and a little snippy sometimes and gets wound up a bit but isn't an all out vicious dog. Just some occasional aggression here and there. Otherwise is playful and happy. This person said I'm using the word wrong. That feisty means happy, excitable, mischievous playful, spirited. Like it's a positive, not a negative. I honestly thought it could be both depending on the context. Can it be both? Is one more correct than the other?

Have I been using the word wrong this whole time???

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    No, it's fine. You are probably hanging out with the wrong people. – Lambie Jun 29 '18 at 20:55
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feisty (adj.) etymology

1896, "aggressive, exuberant, touchy," American English, with -y (2) + feist "small dog," earlier fice, fist (American English, 1805); short for fysting curre "stinking cur," attested from 1520s

And cuteness.com:

In modern use, feisty typically refers to dogs who are reactive, confident and have a little bit of attitude [sic!].

You and your friend are both correct. One man's dog is another's 'curre'!

  • Thank you all for your comments! It has helped tremendously. :-D – user305412 Jun 29 '18 at 21:11
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Tracking 'feist' and 'feisty' in Merriam-Webster dictionaries

Feisty has an interesting record in English, to judge from the entries for it and for its root word feist in various editions of Merriam-Webster dictionaries. To start with, its etymology is odd, as we see in this entry for feist in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):

feist n {obs. fisting hound, fr. obs. fist to break wind} (1770) chiefly dial : a small dog

Here is the corresponding entry for the adjective feisty in the Eleventh Collegiate:

feisty adj feistier, -est (1896) 1 chiefly Southern & Midland a : full of nervous energy : FIDGETY b : TOUCHY, QUARRELSOME c : exuberantly frisky 2 : having or showing a lively aggressiveness : SPUNKY {the movie's feisty heroine}

From this record, we might conclude that feist as a little dog has been an English word since at least 1770, that feisty emerged from the noun by 1896, and that the adjective form—after initially meaning "fidgety"—subsequently expanded to include first the meaning "touchy or quarrelsome" and then the meaning "spunky."

Now let's see how Merriam-Webster dictionaries through the years have actually handled feist and feisty. The first surprise is that neither word (nor any variant word) appears in a Merriam-Webster dictionary until Webster's International Dictionary (1890), which has this brief entry for fice:

Fice n. A small dog ; — written also fise, fyce, fiste, etc. {Southern U.S.}

The next full-size Merriam-Webster dictionary, Webster's New International Dictionary (1909), drops its predecessor's entry for fice, but for the first time offers entries for feist and for fist in the relevant sense:

feist n. {Prop[erly] a fisting dog, from dial. or obs. fist to break wind, fr. (assumed) A[nglo-]S[axon]. fīstan.} A small dog. Same as FIST, n., 3. Local, U.S.

...

fist n. {see FEIST} 1. A breaking wind ; a foul odor. Obs. 2. A puffball. Obs. except in bullfist, puckfist, etc. 3. A small dog (not designating any breed) ; — also called fice, fyste, etc. Often applied in contempt to man.

Next comes Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, third edition (1916), which again shuffles entries and definitions to make fice the primary relevant entry and adds a new twist to the definition:

feist n. A fice. U. S.

...

fice n., or fice dog. {Prop[erly] a fisting dog, from dial. or obs. fist to break wind} A small, worthless dog, a cur. U. S.

...

fist n. A fice. U. S.

The fourth edition of Webster's Collegiate (1931) repeats the entries for all three words (feist, fice, and fist) verbatim, but the ground shifts again in the fifth edition (1936), which unceremoniously drops all three entries. In the sixth edition (1949), all three words are back in place, along with two new variant, feice and fyce—and at long last, they bring feisty (and ficety and fisty) with them:

feice. Var. of FEIST.

feist n. Also feice, fice, fist, fyce. Local, U. S. A small dog.

feisty adj. Also ficety, fisty. Local U. S. Variously: frisky, meddlesome, pesky, cocky, touchy, or spunky.

...

fice, ficety. Vars. of FEIST, FEISTY.

...

fist. Var. of FEIST.

...

fisty. Var. of FEISTY.

...

fyce, n. Var. of FEIST.

That's quite a steamer trunk to unpack, but two things jump out at you right away. First, the multitude of separate entries in the dictionary for variant spellings suggests an unusually fluid situation with regard to orthography; a dictionary normally doesn't list five different ways to spell the same noun in five different places in the dictionary. This provides strong circumstantial evidence that, even in 1949, feist and feisty were not well established as "the right way" to spell the two words. Second, the definition for feisty already contains—in scattershot style—three of the four meanings that the Eleventh Collegiate reports—all but the one that the Eleventh Collegiate claims came first ("fidgety").

The Seventh Collegiate (1963) winnows the offerings a bit, removing the entries for feice, ficety, fist, and fisty, but retaining the brief "variant" entries for fice and fyce. The entry for feist in the Seventh Collegiate is identical to the one that appears forty years later in the Eleventh Collegiate (except that Merriam-Webster started noting words' first occurrence dates starting in the Ninth Collegiate [1983]). But the entry for feisty is considerably more orderly in the Seventh Collegiate than it was in it predecessor:

feisty adj. chiefly South & Midland : being in a state of excitement or agitation: as a : full of nervous energy : FIDGETY b : touchy and quarrelsome c : frisky and exuberant.

This contrasts with the sixth edition's omission of the "fidgety" meaning and with its inclusion of the "spunky" meaning. The Eighth Collegiate (1973) leaves the entries unchanged, except that it adds a quotation from E.E. Rebstock that demonstrates (not entirely helpfully) the use of feisty in the wild: "found us irritated, upset, feisty." The Ninth Collegiate (1983) brings the entries entirely up to date, adding the first recorded occurrence dates of 1770 for feist and 1896 for feisty, and the "having or showing a lively aggressiveness : SPUNKY" definition to the entry for feisty.


Another angle on 'feisty'

The "breaking wind" sense of fist—mentioned in Merriam-Webster's etymological note on feist—receives considerable attention in J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, volume 3 (1893) in an entry for foist:

FOIST, FOYST, or FYST, subs. (old). ... 3. (old).—A silent emission of wind through the anus(see quot., sense 2); a CHEESER. See FART and FOUSTY. {Coles has to fyst, vissio; which in his Latin part he renders to fizzle. Also FYSTING CUR; and in Sherwood's English Dictionary, subjoined to Cotgrave, FYSTING CURS, and others of the same class, are fully illustrated.}

[First four cited instances:] 1598. FLORIO, A Worlde of Wordes. Loffa, a fizle, a fiste, a close farte. 1605 JONSON, Eastward Hoe, pl. iv., 270. Marry, fyst o' your Ruidess. I thought as much. 1662 Rump Songs, II., . That a reason be enacted (if there be not one), Why a fart hath a voice, and a fyst hath none, Which nobody can deny. 1690 B. E., Dict. of the Canting Crew. Foyst ... also a close strong stink, without noise or report.

This adds an element of unpleasantness to the idea of "foisting" something on someone. It also strongly suggests that a "fisting cur" refers specifically to a dog that noiselessly farts.

Mitford Mathews, A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (1951) notes the connection to foist in his entry for feist:

feist, n. Also fice, fist. Chiefly S[outhern] ... A small dog, sometimes wioth a derogatory implication. Cf in OED fysting curre (1529), fisting hound (1576), foisting hound (1611), fisting dog (1688), etc. [First four cited instances:] 1770 Washington Diaries I. 371 A small foist looking yellow cur. 1805 Dow Journal (1814) 265 Bob Sample, one of the most popular A-double-L-part {predestinarian} preachers in the country, ... like a little fice (or cur dog) would rail behind my back. 1850 Garrard Wah-To-Yah iv, 60 In our lodge were three huge curs and four cross feists. 1917 Mathewson Sec. Base Sloan 34 In Missouri or Mississippi he would have been labeled 'fice,' which is equivalent to saying that he was a terrier-like dog of no particular breed.

Mathews's entry for feisty is also interesting:

feisty, a. {f[rom] prec[eding—that is, feist]} Fidgety, belligerent. Colloq. 1913 Kephart, So. Highlanders 94 Feisty means when a feller's allers wigglin' about, wantin' ever'body to see him, like a kid when the preacher comes. 1926 Roberts Time of Man 152 That there feisty bay mare jumped straight upwards and broke the tongue outen the plow. 1947 Sat[urday] Review 27 Sep. 12/3 It signifies nothing, and is washed away in mirth and song, dust of road, clamor of county fair, folk-talk unspoiled with learning, part Bible, part Elizabethan, 'feisty and fractious' as Samantha says.


Conclusions

Despite not receiving formal attention of Merriam-Webster until surprisingly recently (1949), feisty has a colorful (and pungent) past.Although fysting curre dates back to at least 1529 in England, the sources I consulted seem to agree that feisty emerged first in U.S. English usage, as a product of one of those old words generally lost from old country usage but preserved in one or more pockets of the colonies.

Once we get to the figurative meanings of "like a small, spirited dog," the possible meanings of the word diverge markedly. On the one hand, feisty can have a quite positive sense: frisky, spirited, exuberant, spunky. On the other, it can tend toward negative characteristics: fidgety, touchy, or quarrelsome. This split in meanings is (it seems to me) true to the mixed nature of the canine from which it is derived, whether or not that animal has the additional habit of passing gas.

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