Say you’re drinking with a friend over a game of cards, having a few glasses of wine and a few hands of poker, perhaps even in the cellar (that used to be a sketchy place; now a wine cellar is top dollar), and as you raise your glass to sniff you catch a whiff of something so utterly musty, fusty, you have to gasp and look away, and as you at last turn back the first thing you can say is, “What are you trying to foist on me?”
And it’s a very apposite turn of words in so many ways. Oh, we know how we normally use foist. You foist something on someone – you impose it on them in some manner such that you hope not to be held accountable. The word sounds so much like hoist that it’s easily amenable to an image of heaving something up and dumping it on someone – a dump and run, perhaps. “My jerk neighbour just foisted a whole pile of garbage on my lawn!” And the response of the recipient? Something like “Oy!” – a sound also slipped in when you say foist.
Foist what on people? Things such as religion, change, ideas, values, stuff. Along with foist on we also see occasional foist off, usually in foist off on, which looks curiously bidirectional. Foist off what? Opinions, ideas, expenses, dodgy artworks, such like, if we are to go by usage citations. Either way, it’s like sticking them with it, only it’s dodgier. One – two – three – foist! Go! Run away!
Well, that’s the first thing you might think of. But that’s not the first thing foist meant. And even still it’s not the only thing it means.
Where does foist come from? Actually, there’s more than one foist. The best-known one probably comes from a Dutch word cognate with fist, and refers to slipping in (from your fist) a cheating die in a game of dice – or, by extension, a card in a card game. From that we get the same extensions as the semantically mostly equivalent palm off (which comes from prestidigitation). “What are you trying to palm off on me?” can refer to the same sorts of things as “What are you trying to foist on me?” (Oh, yes, trying – quite often one is trying to foist.) But the sense is different, isn’t it? Palm off feels much smoother and more surreptitious.
Along with this foist there are also other foists, mainly coming from Old French fust (the modern is fût), ‘cask for wine’; the sense refers mainly to mustiness or fustiness – note the fust in fustiness: same root. That sense shows up as noun, verb, and adjective.
And then there’s the one that amuses the juvenile part of my mind (a rather large part): an obsolete sense, not really used since the 1600s, meaning ‘break wind silently’. Oh, that’s a perfect foist, isn’t it? It slips one in, like the first sense, and is musty, like the second sense. But actually it comes from a third root, related to feist, which is a more current rendition of the root (it is used on odd occasion to refer to farting hounds). I really do think that foisting one could yet catch on again to refer to passing a silent-but-deadly one. It works so neatly.
It also has something of the right sound, with the soft hisses of the /f/ and /s/. The vowel is [ɔɪ], as in “oy.” But it also has the sound of a stereotypical lower-class New York (Brooklyn/Queens) accent saying first. Or does it?
Well, you will certainly get people trying to foist that on you. The problem is with the first part of that diphthong. It’s not quite right to say “boid” for bird and “foist” for first. Have a listen to Carroll O’Connor’s rendition of it in his role as Archie Bunker (a dialect he O’Connor grew up with): in the clip at www.youtube.com/watch?v=7fqCS7Y_kME, he says works and turning. Be careful to avoid categorical perception – don’t channel the sounds into the closest phoneme in your dialect. He doesn’t say it as [ɔɪ], not quite; that opening sound does not have the lips rounded. Try saying “oy” without rounding your lips at any point – pull on the corners of your mouth with your fingers if you have to. That’s the sound you’re hearing.
What has happened is that the /r/ after the vowel, which is changed into an extension of the vowel in many British and northeastern US accents, has become a narrowing of the vowel, and the mid-central vowel before it has been moved back in the mouth. Not [fɜɜst] but [fʌɪst]. So that is how they slip that in on you – and the fact that, with a little rounding, [ʌɪ] becomes [ɔɪ] is how your brain foists a foist on that first.
But you won’t hear that outside of TV and YouTube now, really. Not too many people in the New York area still say those sounds that way. Go to the International Dialects of English Archive at www.dialectsarchive.com and you’ll find that none of the New York–area speech samples have that feature. So now it’s more something that popular entertainments foist on you. Don’t be surprised – it’s hardly the first time.