karinmollberg (Mollberg is a C.M. Bellman quote) (karinmollberg) wrote in linguaphiles,

Fey Or Not, That Is The Q.

An English Question.

What does the word fey mean to you and how would you use it? Please don´t look it up before answering, native speaker or not. I ask because the way I´ve heard and seen it used, does not seem to correspond to what I find at looking it up.

Thank you so much all for your responses! This is why I love this community.

Added afterwards (not to influence anyone´s responses in advance):

Since someone suggested, I would be "fey" or by all means "fay" (I would not have noticed the difference in pronounciation in spoken English) at a private conversation, I´ve been asking native speakers and others what they think of this word. I must have read it in some writer´s works before but not taken particular notice.
Usually,
the "otherwordly" sense and "elf-like" were mentioned in variations at asking about it. Then, at looking up "fey" in an old dictionary (pocket Thesaurus; not on the net) I found out about the "doomed" or "fated to die" meaning and can only hope, the speaker was unaware about those meanings or rather not going in that direction...nor indeed insinuating my natural gaiety would be anything negative to be ashamed of (special thanks to muckefuck).

All in all, a fairly fey choice for a supposed compliment and somewhat contra-productive as such even if providing food for thought (the dinner itself being mediocre).
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  • 79 comments

ffutures

April 15 2014, 09:28:25 UTC 3 months ago

British native here.

Two meanings, neither very common - fey as in fairies, supernatural creatures and the uncanny is the main one, but it's also sometimes used as a slightly more acceptably alternative to the abusive "fairy" when referring to homosexuals. I wouldn't be happy using it in either context, so I can't give an example.

lareinemisere

April 15 2014, 09:47:52 UTC 3 months ago

This is damn near word for word what I was going to say.

I might just possibly use 'fey' as an adjective to describe someone who seems strange and distant, as if they're "away with the fairies", but I'd be cautious about using it at all because of its connotations.

For the same reason, in the translation I'm currently working on, I'm using 'fae' and 'faerie' for all the supernatural references.

varyar

3 months ago

karinmollberg

3 months ago

yiskah

April 15 2014, 09:46:39 UTC 3 months ago

As an adjective, either 'ethereal, whimsical' or, as the commenter above said, a pejorative term for a homosexual or effeminate man.

As a noun, fairies etc.

yiskah

April 15 2014, 09:47:17 UTC 3 months ago

(British / Australian native speaker, by the way.)

emofordino

3 months ago

karinmollberg

3 months ago

lied_ohne_worte

April 15 2014, 11:12:25 UTC 3 months ago Edited:  April 15 2014, 11:13:03 UTC

I don't think I'd use that word, but I've seen it.

To me it means being somehow connected to the supernatural, such as having glimpses of events one couldn't know about (visions that may not be clear), or being taken out of oneself and acting in unexpected ways due to such connections. I know I've seen it in Tolkien, whose characters sometimes get a "fey mood" which leads to them doing things that seem unreasonable or dangerous; sometimes those actions are in fact beneficial in the end, in other cases they aren't.

karinmollberg

April 15 2014, 18:55:40 UTC 3 months ago

I guess, it´s in Tolkien I´ve seen it written and then lately in a context I unfortunately cannot recall, or indeed in which text.

howlin_wolf_66

April 15 2014, 11:53:57 UTC 3 months ago

wispy, effeminate, camp...

karinmollberg

April 15 2014, 18:56:39 UTC 3 months ago

Wispy and camp are new to me.

solri

April 15 2014, 11:55:07 UTC 3 months ago

Otherworldly in a vaguely disturbing way. (I know this isn't the dictionary definition, but you asked for my personal feeling.)

karinmollberg

April 15 2014, 18:57:38 UTC 3 months ago

That is exactly what I wanted!

solri

April 15 2014, 11:58:44 UTC 3 months ago

Wow, just looked at the other comments. I was completely unfamiliar with the gay connotations, despite being a British native. what also interested me was that no one used the sense of "fated to die".

lareinemisere

April 15 2014, 15:35:08 UTC 3 months ago

It's funny how people can come across one usage and not another, isn't it?

I've never come across the 'fated to die' meaning, although I recall the self-destructive 'fey mood' lied_ohne_worte mentions upthread as being used in Tolkien. Having looked the word up subsequent to posting, my Oxford Dictionary and a number of online dictionaries suggest that the 'doomed to die' meaning is primarily Scottish, and that there are two different roots for the different meanings.

Oh, and the association of 'fey' with campness or effeminacy seems to go back at least as far as Brideshead Revisited, from the examples I'm coming across online...

karinmollberg

3 months ago

sollersuk

3 months ago

sollersuk

3 months ago

biascut

3 months ago

biascut

3 months ago

solri

3 months ago

karinmollberg

3 months ago

karinmollberg

3 months ago

sidheag

April 15 2014, 12:04:34 UTC 3 months ago Edited:  April 15 2014, 15:29:40 UTC

Native speaker, southern England. To do with færie, so: reckless, distant, other-worldly; mad, almost possessed (but not by a specific entity).

karinmollberg

April 15 2014, 19:12:51 UTC 3 months ago

Ah, yes. Mad and possessed; strong words, I thought it was more vague?

sidheag

3 months ago

fingersweep

April 15 2014, 12:07:47 UTC 3 months ago Edited:  April 15 2014, 12:08:25 UTC

It's a word I read, and hear occasionally, but would never use (the word 'daft' is closely associated with it in my mind -- crazy, uncanny, weird). Never felt it to mean 'homosexual/gay,' and I've never heard it used that way. Interesting. (N. NJ)

karinmollberg

April 15 2014, 19:15:25 UTC 3 months ago

Daft I thought meant "stupid or silly" but weird and crazy, yes, that sounds quite appropriate.

fingersweep

3 months ago

biascut

3 months ago

fingersweep

3 months ago

biascut

3 months ago

fingersweep

3 months ago

mamculuna

April 15 2014, 12:12:43 UTC 3 months ago

I believe it means "doomed to die," but often see it used to mean whimsical or faery-like.

karinmollberg

April 15 2014, 19:16:44 UTC 3 months ago

Exactly what did not seem to correspond!

mamculuna

3 months ago

karinmollberg

3 months ago

summerless_year

April 15 2014, 12:29:01 UTC 3 months ago

I don't even think I knew it was an English word until I was well into adulthood. For years I thought it was an abbreviation of the Yiddish faygeleh, which means "little bird," but was used when I was a kid (70s, Brooklyn) to mean effeminate (like "fairy" when used to describe a boy). But in retrospect, I think I knew it as "supernatural" for describing a person later. Anyway, not a word I'd generally use for the reason OP mentions.

karinmollberg

April 15 2014, 19:20:27 UTC 3 months ago

That´s very interesting, I had no idea there was any such connotation with Yiddish. Pretty too; "little bird". It does seem to be a bit atavistic, yes. And not nice or PC in the latter sense.

summerless_year

3 months ago

sollersuk

3 months ago

haikujaguar

April 15 2014, 13:00:35 UTC 3 months ago

Fey to me is fairy-touched, and able to see their encroaching mortality and yes, it's coming soon. And it makes a person weird because, hey, I see my ending and all endings and there is something strange in my eyes when you look at me because of it.

And I do use it, but I write fantasy, so that's to be expected. :)

karinmollberg

April 15 2014, 19:23:47 UTC 3 months ago

"Fairy-touched", that´s a new one to me. Frodo-.like? I thought it was to the contrary: fairies don´t die, do they?

haikujaguar

3 months ago

thetimefox

April 15 2014, 13:31:54 UTC 3 months ago

Noun: faerie, sometimes used to refer to the whole realm of faerie - "the fey."

Adjective: otherworldly, uncanny, faerie-like

I've never seen or heard it used in a negative way, though there's a connotation of discomfort. My family have been calling me fey for as long as I remember.

American, west coast

karinmollberg

April 15 2014, 19:27:33 UTC 3 months ago

"The fey", that´s nice!

Me neither (never saw it used negatively) but yes, it was used to describe me as a person as well which made me wonder;)

missflyer

April 15 2014, 14:13:47 UTC 3 months ago

It conjures up images of Faerie to me, of immortal beings with (or without!) wings, in a land that is eternally green and full of life and dancing and music.

Or, someone who is Faerie-like, full of life and light, maybe slightly aloof too.

karinmollberg

April 15 2014, 19:28:53 UTC 3 months ago

Slightly aloof, ouf;) Otherwise, all wonderful descriptions.

darchildre

April 15 2014, 15:10:54 UTC 3 months ago

As people have said above, I'd read it as "otherworldly" and having something to do with fairies, but it also can carry a connotation of "doomed". A person who's fey has bad luck, knows it, and doesn't care, either about themselves or the people around them.

Though, this feels like a definition gleaned from old fashioned books, and that connotation doesn't carry to more modern usages.

karinmollberg

April 15 2014, 19:31:19 UTC 3 months ago

"Doomed", yes, that´s what I foound at looking it up and it did sound old-fashioned, even a bit out of place.

demarafis

April 15 2014, 15:17:21 UTC 3 months ago

Fey as a noun means the Irish mythical faeiry.
Fey as an adjective means related to mythical feys (fey court, dark fey, etc.) or someone who looks very elf-like. Tolkienish elves is what comes to mind.

I don't use fey in daily speech. Fairy is what I'd come across in association with effeminate gays, but I don't hear it used much (if at all) and it's a negative connotation.

karinmollberg

April 15 2014, 19:33:39 UTC 3 months ago Edited:  April 18 2014, 16:30:56 UTC

The Irish aspect is new to me (fey court, dark fey, etc.). Fascinating. Otherwise this seems to confirm what I´ve come across already except I didn´t know about the (negative) gay connotation.

demarafis

3 months ago

demarafis

3 months ago

orange_fell

April 15 2014, 16:05:16 UTC 3 months ago

Fey: related to fairies/elves, or else being able to see one's own death coming and recklessly courting it (usually in battle).

karinmollberg

April 15 2014, 19:35:02 UTC 3 months ago

Recklessly courting one´s death in battle gives it yet another dimension.

muckefuck

April 15 2014, 16:28:42 UTC 3 months ago

Native-speaker of American English (40s, living in Chicago).

Nowadays I basically think of this as an old-fashioned euphemism for "gay" or "effeminate". Before that, it seems to have denoted someone endowed with a certain joie-de-vivre: light-hearted, pleasure-loving, somewhat precious or affected in manner and speech. That is, many of the same associations as the word gay.

muckefuck

April 15 2014, 16:32:19 UTC 3 months ago

Having now read the other responses: I think of fay and fey as distinct words and not simply alternative spellings. Fay for me is a variant of fairy, but strictly in the sense of an otherworldly being. Also used adjectivally, e.g. "fay folk" or "fay magic".

mamculuna

3 months ago

lareinemisere

3 months ago

muckefuck

3 months ago

mamculuna

3 months ago

karinmollberg

3 months ago

biascut

April 15 2014, 16:39:42 UTC 3 months ago

I've always assumed it to mean insubstantial, light, airy, but just recently I've started to come across it to mean "not caring if you live or die" or "not believing you can affect whether you live of die.

karinmollberg

April 15 2014, 19:39:44 UTC 3 months ago

The first meanings were what I thought it meant til I found out about the other variations.

lignota

April 15 2014, 17:14:08 UTC 3 months ago

(Native English speaker)

I think of it as meaning something like "unearthly" or "elf-touched" or "fated." I've seen it used of someone who knows he's going to die and is acting a little crazy as a result. It's a literary, archaic word; I'd be surprised to see it used by a modern author (unless they're writing Tolkien fanfic or something), and I would never expect to hear it used in conversation.

karinmollberg

April 15 2014, 19:43:07 UTC 3 months ago

Unearthly, yes I agree. Elf-touched and fated seem to be as valid. Very literary, I´d say but I first heard it spoken.

laudre

April 15 2014, 17:28:55 UTC 3 months ago

American English L1 speaker.

With that spelling ("fey", as opposed to "fay")), I'd think of it as an adjective when standing on its own, an archaic term meaning odd, in the sense of otherworldly. Not necessarily implying belief in the supernatural on the part of the speaker, merely describing it as a quality, and usually applied to people rather than things. I wouldn't think of it as a noun per se normally, although I'd recognize its origins as such in an adjectival phrase like "fey-touched."

For the spelling "fay," I'd think of it as a noun, referring to elves more akin to, for example, the Fair Folk of Celtic folklore -- whimsical and beautiful, but alien, dangerous, and potentially toxic to humans (as opposed to Tolkien-style elves, which are far more common in modern fantasy fiction).

karinmollberg

April 15 2014, 19:45:35 UTC 3 months ago

Quite odd;) but plausible in both senses.

rirakkumiru

April 15 2014, 20:42:56 UTC 3 months ago

I only knew "fae" for fairie realm. Have never heard "fey" for anything else. American speaker here.

karinmollberg

April 16 2014, 07:57:39 UTC 3 months ago

It doesn´t seem to be used in common speech, no but I´ve seen it in writing.

kt_n_dd

April 15 2014, 23:04:25 UTC 3 months ago

Just to add my two cents (American English):

I have read and heard "fey" to mean uncanny or otherworldly. The person is not magical, but their mood/personality/behaviors are connected to something in the mystical realms, beyond the material world. I've never had a negative connotation with it. Spelled "fae" and used as a noun, it refers to the entirety of Gaelic faerie world.

I have heard the term "fay" related to wispy or disconnected OR to a "type" of homosexual (as opposed to "butch" or "flaming", for example) in look (skinny) and behavior.

In my experience, the homosexual reference is more common with the "y" spelling and the mystical reference with the "ae". I thought it was a rather well-known and used term.

karinmollberg

April 16 2014, 07:44:41 UTC 3 months ago

I´m not that familiar with the Irish/Gaelic faerie world though I´ve come across it in parts in literature and conversation.

"Fay" related to a "type" of homosexual was new to me but I suppose it might be used by people who would find transvestites as "uncanny" as they would anyone gay (in that sense) or indeed just a to them non-conform person.

I suppose you may be right about the difference in spelling, at hearing the word it wouldn´t necessarily be evident, at least not to a non-native speaker like myself.

elen_nare

April 16 2014, 03:36:27 UTC 3 months ago Edited:  April 16 2014, 03:42:13 UTC

(Answering without looking at the other comments, or any of the post beyond the first paragraph): I know a few meanings for it - elf-like or fairy-like; doomed, fated (especially to die); a sort of madness coming on from the sense of that doom.

ETA: and having read the comments, I'd never come across the pejorative sense!

karinmollberg

April 16 2014, 07:50:53 UTC 3 months ago

Thanks for replying without looking beforehand! As you can see, I had only put up the first paragraph for starters not to influence the answers.

The pejorative sense would only be so if one found that kind of a person anything that applies to the epithet in a negative sense, wouldn´t it?

lizvogel

April 16 2014, 14:21:23 UTC 3 months ago Edited:  April 16 2014, 14:31:08 UTC

1. Elves

2. A mental state of being in love with death, especially as on a battlefield where the individual's survival is not the priority.

ETA: I might use it in either sense, but then I write sf/f and adventure fiction. IME it doesn't come up often in casual conversation. Midwestern US, with random Southern & British influences.

Having now skimmed the other comments: I'd never heard of the effeminate/gay connotations before this, to the point that I find myself wondering if that's not a corruption of some other word.

muckefuck

April 16 2014, 16:18:50 UTC 3 months ago

What other word do you have in mind?

I think it makes perfect sense when you compare the development of "fairy".

karinmollberg

3 months ago