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To fancy something is to feel that it would be pleasant to have, without necessarily finding it unpleasant not to have it: “I fancy a pint — let’s go down to the pub.”

The speaker would like a pint of beer, but “I want a pint,” while perfectly acceptable, might sound rather demanding.

The speaker does not want to sound either self-centered or alcoholic, so he says, “I fancy a pint.” The attraction of a pint, he suggests, is not overwhelming, and he is prepared to be overruled on the pub plan. A similar sense is conveyed by “I feel like a pint” or the typically English understatement “I wouldn’t mind a pint.”

To fancy a person is a quite different proposition, meaning to find them sexually attractive. Even though it has a very slightly slangy feel, the word is so universal that it has no synonyms.

It is a purely descriptive, nonjudgmental term: It says nothing about whether the attraction is strong or weak, sleazy or wholesome, accompanied or not by romantic feelings. It just describes an instinctive response to the sight of the face or body of the desired person.

Finally, “fancy dress” is attire designed to make one look recognizably like some other real or fictional character and is worn to a fancy dress party, which would be called a “costume party” in the U.S.

“I felt very out of place — I was the only person not in fancy dress.” Fancy, in all senses, is an old word, originally a contraction of “fantasy.”

Mark Wainwright is a freelance writer living in Cambridge. Got a question about something you’ve seen or heard around the United Kingdom? E-mail us at:


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