I challenge you to read today’s word and not snarf or snicker.
Oh. Too late?
What does fnarr fnarr look like it might be? You may be inclined to imagine that, notwithstanding its chortling appearance, it’s really the name of a fruit or other food, or perhaps a folk dance of some sort. Or some furry little arboreal critter.
Well nope. It is, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, an interjection “representing lecherous or half-suppressed laughter,” or an adjective describing something “characterized by crude sexual innuendo; vulgarly or salaciously humorous.”
Do we wonder whether this is some obsolete holdover from 18th-century Scotland or Restoration England? It is not; it is one of the newest entries in the OED, with a first citation from 1987. And the source is clearly identified (and not just by the OED): It’s a British comic for adults named Finbarr Saunders & His Double Entendres. The title character is a youth who finds something off-colour to snicker at in absolutely everything (a dirty mind is a terrible thing to waste!), and the adults around him give him more than enough material to work with. He emits a wide variety of sounds of suppressed laughter in reaction; examples include (in all caps since the lettering in the comic is, as in most comics, in all caps) GRA! GRA!, YOOP! YOOP!, SNIT! SNIT!, WURP! WURP!, FOFF! FOFF!, AROOGA! AROOGA!, BIP! BIP!, YURK! YURK!, SPROOF! SPROOF!, PLEEB! PLEEB!, BOOF! BOOF!, and of course FNARR! FNARR!
The emotivity of the utterance is conveniently expressed with reduplication (in the ordinary tongue, that means you know he’s excited because it comes twice). Nearly all the words have some indication of stifling: a back vowel (/u/ or /o/ or similar), a retroflex (/r/), a lip-biting fricative (/f/).
These expressions haven’t all equally caught on. But fnarr fnarr has. It probably doesn’t hurt that fnarr can be contracted from Finbarr, but it is particularly effective in its expression; it’s a very good representation of a partially stifled snorting chuckle of a basely lecherous kind, a har that can’t be smothered by a pillow. It has a certain animality to it, too – dog owners probably recognize it as a sound their pet has made while contending with a chew toy or other plaything. It has made various appearances in the British popular press (music review magazines, for instance), and was helpfully noted by the Guardian in 1990. It sometimes shows up reduced to fnar fnar or just fnarr.
Not every double entendre is fnarr fnarr, though, just the obviously crude and crass ones. I have often said that a word isn’t much good if it can only mean one thing at a time. I do love a good double entendre. But good is the word to watch here. It is possible for innuendo to be refined. Wit is like cane syrup: it can be heavy and sticky and hard to swallow, the sort of thing you can’t wait to rinse off, but if you refine it and dry it out you will get some sugar.
Oh, go ahead and say it.
It is a fnarr, fnarr better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a fnarr, fnarr better rest that I go to than I have ever known…
Don’t encourage us! You might get what YOOP YOOP asked for… the SPROOF! SPROOF! is in the pudding…
This makes me think also of the British slang expression “phoar” or “phwoar”, Even more overtly sexual.
I first saw phwoar in the novel e by Matt Beaumont. It’s epistolary, composed entirely of emails sent within an ad agency. At one point a new female hire’s appearance is marked by two emails. One is from one woman to another and has the subject line “Slapper!” The other is from one man to another and has the subject line “Phwoar!”
I should definitely do that one.
Thank you for a very amusing article and yes, I said it, more than twice.
Has anyone here read John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany”? Owen is forever shouting in his perpetually shrill voice. He grows older but not up – he will always be short. Time passes, he attends school, and “There, Owen Meany earns a reputation as an intelligent, sarcastic student. He is known for his heavily opinionated editorial column in the school newspaper, in which he WRITES IN ALL-CAPITAL LETTERS TO REFLECT HIS SHRILL VOICE…”
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