Finagle: procure by deceit or trickery. Tangle your fingers into it and snag it away. Or talk it out of someone with your gift of the Blarney.
Supposedly finagle comes from an earlier English word fainague, from French roots meaning ‘act’ (feign) ‘sick’ (ague). Never mind that acting sick has to do with indolence, not with procurement. Never mind that I can only find this word fainaigue as the conjectured etymon of finagle. I’m not saying that there definitely was no such word; I’m just saying “Hmmmmmm.”
The first documented use that I (or Oxford) can find of finagle in its modern sense is a 1926 citation from the USA. Google Books gives me further hits that show it was established in use in the USA (though as a colloquialism not familiar to all readers) by the 1930s, though some claimed it came from England. Oxford seems to think it came first from England but doesn’t produce evidence. Wiktionary presents it as American. There are also a couple of variant spellings, presumably from people who heard the word said and spelled it how they thought it was likely written – phenagle is notable, because it shows the cod-sophistic association of ph.
So can we finagle some kind of explanation for this word’s presence in our language?
I should say that there are earlier hits for Finagle in Google Books. It appears as a name in two works of short fiction of the 1800s. The first, in a volume dated 1821, Winter Evening Tales Collected among the Cottagers in the South of Scotland, by James Hogg, makes it the name of a town in the south of Scotland. The second, appearing first in Scribner’s Monthly in summer 1872, in a story by John S. Barry, makes it an Irish family name. The latter, titled “Shane Finagle’s Station,” is as thorough a slander of stereotypes against the Irish as you would ever wish you had not cast eyes on, and it features an assortment of peasant rogues blathering their way through catechism and confessional before ending with a massive drinkfest. But there’s nothing other than bare resemblance of form to link these Finagles to our word finagle.
Also, there’s nothing in those two fictions to say how the names should be said, and one could easily imagine a stress on the first syllable intended – compare Fingal and Finnegan, after all. With our word today, on the other hand, the stress is decidedly on the second syllable, and phonaesthetically, that makes an important difference.
Consider if the stress were on the first syllable. The word would have the same kind of pattern as miracle or risible or any of a number of other tumbling trisyllabic words with various effect. The most important bit would be the fin. But as it is, that’s just a flick of the fingers as they reach to grasp the main business.
And the main business has a –gle on it, one that has a stressed syllable right before. There are many words of that form in English, some with n before the gand some not, but have a look at this selection: boggle, bungle, dangle, dingle, dongle, newfangled, gaggle, gargle, giggle, goggle, gurgle, haggle, inveigle, jangle, juggle, mangle, mingle, muggle, snaggle, spangle, squiggle, straggle, struggle, tangle, tingle, toggle, waggle, wangle. Nearly all of them are formed with the old –le frequentative suffix, used to make verbs referring to repeated action, but there’s something more in many of them: a certain disorder, disarray, loose motion, or chaotic or uncontrolled or messy nature. There are certainly words of the –gle form that don’t match that meaning at all – beagle, eagle, and triangle come to mind – but we form impressions of what senses go with what sounds mainly from general habitual association, and we can always allow exceptions for familiar words.
There is, I am inclined to think, some sense of complication and disorder in what’s meant by finagle. Consider that Webster’s Third New International defines it with reference to other terms that include wangle and swindle, which have similar phonaesthetics (swapping the d in for g does change things a little, but they differ only in the tongue’s contact point when saying them). It’s not to say that the word sprang up just because the form demanded it! But when people confect terms, the ones they choose and the ones that stick tend to have sounds that catch on for a reason.
And often more than one reason. Let’s be honest: finagle does have a bit of an “Irish” sound to many English-speaking ears, doesn’t it? I don’t think it has any real “French” sound, fainaigue be damned. But the idea that some Blarney-tongued dissolute Finnegan might charm something out of someone by finagling– well, it doesn’t altogether run against English-speakers’ easy-minded stereotypes, and it goes with the –gle association too.
I’m not saying that’s where finagle comes from. I’m not even saying these things definitely had an influence on it. I don’t have data to support the conjecture. But if it had to come down to it, I think it’s an easier idea to talk someone into going with than many another might be.