“Fancy”

An item from Jessica Simpson’s “I Fancy You” Collection at Macy’s

Fancy, a useful verb (deriving from a noun referring to the imagination, as in a young man’s f. lightly turning to thoughts of love in spring), has two main senses. The first, followed by that, is a sort of combination of speculate and imagine with just a hint of improbability. A common idiom is I fancy myself a …

This fancy is more British than American, I would say, but has long been in view on both sides. So James Parker, in a February 24, 2012, New York Times review of a novel called The Technologists, wrote:

“Do you hear a whisper of ”The Da Vinci Code’ in all this? I fancy I do.”

The other fancy means some combination of like and desire, has traditionally been applied to people, and is more British. Thus Walter Raleigh in The History of the World (1616): “Ninus..fancied her so strongly, as (neglecting all Princely respects) he tooke her from her husband.”

It’s sprung up from time to time in the U.S., memorably in Yip Harburg’s lyric  to “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love,” from the Broadway musical “Finian’s Rainbow” (1947):  “When I’m not facing the face that I fancy,/I fancy the face I face.”

Anne Tyler, who overall is rather fond of British diction, has this line in her new novel The Beginner’s Goodbye: “I decided that our reader in this case was a young woman who had been invited to go birdwatching with a young man she secretly fancied.”

In recent months Americans have shown a marked fancy for fancying not boys or girls but stuff. I first became aware of this when a Facebook friend of mine started posting the objects of his desire through an app called Fancy, which describes itself “part store, blog, magazine and wishlist. It’s a place to discover great stuff, to curate a collection of things you love, to get updates on your favorite brands and stores and to share your discoveries.”

In short order I found a blog called “Things I Fancy,” which I gather to be written by an American because she describes herself as a “stay-at-home mom” (not “mum”), and “Fashion I Fancy,” by “a California native living in NYC.”

And then, of course, there’s The Jessica Simpson “I Fancy You” Fragrance Collection at Macy’s.

Fancy that.

14 responses to ““Fancy”

  1. I wrote about Jessica Simpson’s use of “fancy” in an August 2011 post: http://nancyfriedman.typepad.com/away_with_words/2011/08/fancy-shmancy.html

    I can’t help wondering whether Americans have been softened up by Cat Fancy magazine (published since 1965 in Irvine, California) and the “Fancy Nancy” series of illustrated children’s books, to which I am understandably partial.

  2. Richard Geraghty

    and let’s not forget the British “fancy dress” party, which I first assumed meant formal evening wear, but alas in the U.S. means a costume party. Best to know this before showing up.

  3. There are also shops selling fancy goods, and confectioners selling cakes and fancies.

  4. Perhaps ABBA and Mamma Mia may have helped, in the song ‘Money, Money, Money’ there is the line ‘I bet he wouldn’t fancy me’

  5. Fancy also means posh, but not in a derogatory way (unless that’s how you say it (as in, you say as if you have a bit of a plum in your mouth))

  6. ” The Fancy” is also used to describe breeders and showers of rabbits:

  7. There’s also the phrase “A little of what you fancy does you good” – music-hall song by Marie Lloyd: that is, a bit of self-indulgence is healthy.

  8. A little anecdote about “Fancy Dress”. I’m a Brit and I organised an event a few years back which had a posh dinner at the end. The event was on a historical theme, so I asked delegates before hand if any of them thought that “Fancy Dress” was appropriate. It turns out that whereas the rest of the Brits, and myself, thought this meant “wear costume”, the Americans thought it mean “wear our best clothes”.

  9. I’m curious what you think “I fancy myself a …” means. “I fancy a bag of chips” is fine in British, and the most common use of the verb, but the construction you cite I would only rarely use, as “I fancy myself an adventurer” – as in, “I think of myself as a” – and comes across as a bit pretentious. (Wi the standard disclaimer that if you go ten miles down the road in any direction in the UK you’ll find a different dialect, of course, but it doesn’t look quite right to me as is.)

    • Yes, one sees it occasionally in U.S. as in the adventurer example, maybe not pretentious but slightly self-deprecating, e.g., “Back home, I used to fancy myself a conservative pundit.” (NY Times, Sept. 17, 2012)

    • I’m not sure I would consider the usage “I fancy myself an adventurer” pretentious as such. Maybe a little archaic and possibly it would sound a little odd to me (as a Brit) coming from the mouth of a younger person. Of course your disclaimer always applies; I would not be exaggerating if I were to say that there are about 10 different dialects of English within a 20 mile radius of where I live in England.

  10. No one seems to have commented here that, certainly in the home counties and London, fancy in the context of ‘i fancy you’ is really a bit childish. Usually you would only hear it uttered by teenagers and/or immature young adults (“my mate fancies you”). Adults tend to use ‘like’, or in some contexts, especially in reference to stuff, the more American ‘crush’ eg. “style crush” in fashion magazines. To me, as a mid-twenties female, a perfume called “I fancy you” makes me cringe a little bit, and would be seen as marketed specifically at young girls over here.

  11. Mark Wellington

    Re: sciencefactcheck | October 9, 2012 at 3:22 am

    I think this is a southern thing. I’m pretty sure anyone north of the Watford Gap is comfortable saying ‘you fancy him/her’.

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