By Betty Kirkpatrick
There’s much to be said for taking the bus in the city even if you do have a car. Apart from the obvious advantages, such as avoiding extortionate parking fees, you can salve the greener part of your conscience by helping to save the planet and you can indulge in a bit of eavesdropping. I mean listening in to real head-to-head conversations and not to the clichéd mobile conversation which begins, ‘I’m on the bus…’
Overheard bus conversations produce some real gems. The other day I was diverted to hear an elderly woman say in an impeccable Morningside accent: “He’s married again already and his second wife is much more fantoosh than Jean ever was.” Jean appeared to be the not-very-long-deceased wife.
Fantoosh, pronounced as it is spelt, and with the emphasis on the second syllable, is a Scots word which, when used of a person, means over-dressed or ultra-fashionable, bordering on the flashy. It seems to be mostly used of women and an over-dressed woman can be called a fantoosh or described as fantooshed. However, I am sure that there are bound to be some fantoosh men around nowadays when so much money is spent on men’s grooming.
Fantoosh, meaning ostentatious or pretentious, can also be used of inanimate objects and can refer to a wide range of things. Weddings tend to bring out the fantoosh in people. Many people tend to go way over the top when it comes to their big day and produce everything from fantoosh invitations to fantoosh floral displays to fantoosh wedding favours to fantoosh bridal hairstyles to fantoosh wedding cakes. Wedding guests often add to the general air of fantoosherie with their fantoosh hats.
The word fantoosh, whether referring to the animate or the inanimate, is usually used as a term of criticism or disapproval. Thus, the woman in the bus who so described the late Jean’s replacement was certainly not delivering a compliment.
It is strange, given the disapproval that is traditionally attached to fantoosh, that several modern shops or businesses, from restaurants to flower shops to hat shops to flooring specialists, use the word as a name to trade under. Perhaps the owners of the businesses just like the sound of the word and have never investigated its darker side.
The Scottish National Dictionary suggests an interesting and unusual origin for fantoosh. It says that the word appears to have been coined during World War 1, having been influenced by the obsolete English slang word fanty-sheen meaning, as a noun, a marionette or, as an adjective, showy or fanciful. This is thought to have originated from the Italian word fantoccino, meaning a puppet, which is related to French fantoche, also meaning a puppet. Other commentators on Scots suggest that fantoosh has come straight from the French word.
Reverting to my comments on overheard bus conversations, I have found that these are not infrequently a good source of Scots words. This is partly because many day-time bus passengers are of the age to be in possession of a bus pass. Their very age makes them more likely to be in possession of a vocabulary that, at best, is rich in Scots words and, at least, often contains a smattering of them.
Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.