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figure 1


feist. A person or animal that is irascible, touchy, thin-skinned, or bad-tempered.reference 1 Alternatively, a person of little worth.reference 2

Once again unlikable persons are compared to disreputable dogs, in this case a small mongrel terrier that is used for hunting squirrels in Appalachia. The definitions tend to sound much like those for bitch.

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There seems to be some dispute as to whether feist is truly a breed or not. While it is not recognized by the American Kennel Club, there are numerous breeders, breeder associations, and even scholars of popular culture that claim differently.reference 3 One web site goes so far as to provide a long list of famous feists, noting that Abraham Lincoln's dog, Fido, was a feist and that the sixteenth President even wrote a poem about a feist.reference 4 So the dogs have a cultural pedigree, if not a solid bloodline.

When you look at the etymology of the term, the story takes a twist. Feist or fice or fyst originates from the Anglo-Saxon word fistan, which means to fart. Despite one suggestion that the name was applied to the hunting dogs because they “run as if breaking the wind”reference 5 (whatever that might mean) there is a much more likely possibility. The small dogs were originally referred to as a fysting curres or stinking curs.reference 6 So calling someone a feist is not belittling in a particular way.

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figure 3

There is also a Canadian singer-songwriter named Leslie Feist, no relation.





1. Cassidy, Frederic Gomes, and Joan Houston Hall, eds. 1985. Dictionary of American Regional English. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1:384.

2. Santoso, Alex. 2008. 10 Insulting Words You Should Know. Neatorama. Accessed Feb 10 2009 from http:// 2008/ 05/ 03/ 10-insulting-words-you-should-know/.

3. Davis, Donald, and Jeffrey Stotik. 1992. Feist or Fiction? The Squirrel Dog of the Southern Mountains. Journal of Popular Culture 26 (3):193-301.

4. Burns, P. 2007. Feists: From Washington to Lincoln to Faulkner. Terrierman's Daily Dose. Blogspot. Accessed Feb 10 2009 from http:// terriermandotcom.blogspot. com/ 2007_06_01_ archive.html.

5. Davis. 195.

6. Harper, Douglas. 2001. Feisty. Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed Feb 10 2009 from http:// index.php? search=feisty.

feisty. While the traditional definitions emphasize aggressiveness, excitability and, yes, touchiness,reference 7 it has been my impression that it is used to refer to high-spirited, strong-willed, or confident beyond what appearances would seemto some anywayto justify. In my mind the term is often applied to women, providing what I perceive to be a refreshingly positive spin on female self-confidence. Despite this intuitive definition, usage in general and a quick poll of friends and colleagues did not consistently support my notion. Nor could I discern a generational shift. Perhaps it depends on whether descriptions such as “spirited, smart women who don't follow the rules...” and “you bet i'm feisty. and now i'm going to mop the floor with you”reference 8 seem to be positive or negative.

While It certainly has the same roots as feist and might be considered a dog-related term, I have a hard time reading the negative connotations of feist into the contemporary usage of feisty.

7. The Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. 3d ed. Accessed from

8. Blanchette, Madeline Weaver. 2009. Re: Alec Is Wondering What You Think the Word "Feisty" Means...Don't Look It Up! What Does Your Gut Tell You? Good or Bad? More Associated with Men or Wornen? to A. MacLeod. Feb 11.


About the illustrations: Figure 1 is a feist, or so owner Tommy Trott says. Permission pending.

Figure 2 is Lincoln’s dog Fido, a feist, supposedly. The photograph is in the public domain because the copyright has expired.

Figure 3 is Leslie Feist at the Filmore in San Francisco on September 8, 2006. The photograph was taken by lookslikeamy and is used here under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

see also: mongrel; cur; pooch; pye dog;
bitch; yaller dog
Last updated: February 24, 2009
by Alec MacLeod 2001-2008  Dogmatic Technologies Oakland Creative Commons unless otherwise expressly stated, all original material of whatever nature created by Alec MacLeod and included in The Canine in Conversation and any related pages, is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Please read the Terms of Use Agreement by Alec MacLeod Dogmatic Technologies