UK weekly edition, Wednesday, June 6, 2007

“How are the children?” “Oh, they’re in fine fettle, I’m happy to say.”

“Fettle,” in this sense means condition or form; to be in good fettle is to be on good form. Fettle is most often “fine,” though it may be good, excellent, etc. It is a somewhat jaunty word, so if one is in any kind of fettle at all, it almost invariably is good; one rarely hears anyone complain of being in poor fettle.

This is the youngest sense of fettle, dating from only 1750. It derives from the other sense still in common use, a verb meaning to groom a horse or, similarly, to prepare, fix, or tidy anything.

“I’ll just fettle us some dinner.” Fettling has an efficient sound, and normally that is its meaning, but it can be hijacked to conceal something less productive: as in “John was fettling about, waiting for the guests to arrive.” John was probably busying himself with nothing in particular, rather than doing anything useful.

This sense of the word is ancient and its further lineage is unclear, but it may be from a now obsolete word, meaning “girdle.” If so, it is of royal ancestry, since the latter is first recorded in the ninth century in a translation into English of the philosopher Boethius, by no less a personage than King Alfred the Great.

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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