What is the softest sound in English? The one most like a very fluffy feather duvet?
To my ears it’s /f/. Yes, /h/ is in some ways softer, but that’s the softness of a breeze. I’d rather lie on a fluffy duvet than a soft breeze.
Now, what do you associate with being hit with the hand, open or clenched? Anything soft?
Well, yes, perhaps there’s a scuffle, a brushing and grasping of clothing before the bruising and bone-bopping. Two bodies engaged in a physical confrontation may come into close contact like letters in ligature, fi or ff. But the swinging fists, cuffing each other’s heads? Hard like a voiceless stop – a knuckle tap like a /t/, a solid knock like a /k/.
Perhaps the fists swing through the air with a rustling of fabric, and the person hit falls back with further friction. Perhaps a pugilistic confrontation really can sound like “fisticuffs.”
But does it have to? Well, of course not. Onomatopoeia is not the sole basis of language. And it just happens that the word we have for a closed hand, claviform, is fist, a word of Germanic origin that comes by way of the Old English strong feminine noun fyst. And one word we have for striking a blow with the hand is cuff – we tend to think of this as a backhand now, the sort of thing that might actually make a “cuff” type of sound – a word that appears to come from Germanic but may have an ultimate Hebraic source, the OED says coyly. (Note that it’s not cuff as in ‘sleeve collar’ – and fist-to-cuffs, which I have seen, is just not it.)
And so we do the sort of handiwork to which we are often wont: we take two words and, playing on assonances, make a compound analogous to another one – such as handiwork. Handy work? Fisty cuff. (Fisticuff was at some earlier times spelled fisty cuff.)
You don’t normally see or hear reference to just one fisticuff. Somehow such a lengthy and scuffling word is not quite right for a single bop to the brainbox, is it? Instead we get a five-dollar word for a fistfight: “It now and then happened that the literary gladiators came to actual fisticuffs.” (J.A. Symonds, Renaissance in Italy.) There is something of the Victorian waistcoated bare-knuckle boxer in this: it has a formal or old-fashioned edge, or anyway a certain detached erudition. I can picture Snagglepuss saying it: “Heavens to Murgatroyd! Fisticuffs even!”
And it does, after all, have a sonic infrastructure of physical stuff, sticks and staffs and fists and some selected expletives (stronger than “Suffering succotash!”). It is also a pleasure to say, cycling from bitten lip to hiss and tap on tongue tip to kick at the back and then again the opening fricative. It has rhythm, a dactyl time-step like a little soft shoe. It plays so effectively with words like confiscate and suffocate and even sycophant, plus stick shift and scoff at and so much more.
Give it a try: The sycophant was fixated on the efficacy of resorting to fisticuffs. Stephanie Escoffier can scoff at my fractured stick, but it effected sufficient deflection when I was engaged in fisticuffs. Not glorious prose styling, but an engaging oral exercise. And fair enough: a most common kind of fisticuffs now, it seems, is verbal fisticuffs.