Can “blarney” be “in fine fettle”?

By Maeve Maddox

I came across the following in a newspaper column.

the Bergthold blarney was in fine fettle

I tend to think of people, horses, and things such as businesses as being “in fine fettle,” so seeing the expression applied to “blarney” stopped me in my tracks.

blarney – flattering, persuasive speech, often with the intent to deceive. Blarney is employed to pick up women and to sell people things they don’t need. Blarney is what the George Lopez character is a master of when he’s trying to conceal something from his wife. In the news story quoted here, Bergthold is a child abuser who persuaded the DHS to accept him as a foster parent.

The noun blarney with the sense of “gift of gab” derives from a story about Queen Elizabeth I and the Lord of Blarney Castle in Ireland. When Elizabeth tried to elicit an oath of loyalty from him, he gave her long, flattering responses without ever actually submitting to her rule. Said the Queen:

this is all Blarney, he never means what he says and never does what he promises.”

The expression in fine fettle means “in good health, condition, or spirits.” It seems to be especially popular in headlines.

World economy is in fine fettle, says G8 –headline, Telegraph

Flying Rudolph is in fine fettle –headline The Hindu (Flying Rudolph is a race horse.)

At week’s end most West Coast citizens had no thought of panic. What was there to be panicky about? They were in fine fettle. —Time, June 15, 1942

Ridley in fine fettle –headline Gloucestershire newspaper group

Car crash baby in fine fettle –headline, The Local (Sweden’s News in English)

Fettle always comes in the phrase “in fine fettle.” Michael Quinion (World Wide Words) notes that in Yorkshire dialect, fettle could be a verb meaning “to tidy up,” or “repair.” He also points out that the word has specialized meanings in some trades.

I suppose that blarney can be in fine fettle, but the combination still strikes me as odd. What do other writers and readers think?

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12 Responses to “Can “blarney” be “in fine fettle”?”

  • Blog Expert

    Interesting word. Have never used it myself but always here to learn.

  • Brad K.

    Blarney carries an atmosphere of the Irish; “in fine fettle” more ‘proper’ English. Both phrases seem to fit poorly.

    I find the statement misleading. Blarney often applies to a socially dubious level of disapproval, quite unrelated to criminal child abuse. The term blarney doesn’t convey the negativity I would use to invert the “in fine fettle” when the meaning is actually closer to ” Bergthold falsified his application,” “DHS fell for Bergthold’s rosy tale,” or “Bergthold sold DHS a bill of goods”.

  • Jimmy Shelter

    Two very unknown expressions in one sentence?

    It seems like the newspaper columnist wants to impress people with his vocabulary.

  • anexa85

    This sentence seems pretty ridiculous to me. Like Jimmy Shelter said, sounds like he is trying to impress us.

  • Grace S.

    If this clause were a headline, we could allow that the headline writer was searching for alliterative words, which is often the case; however, it appears the wording was in the body of the article, which should not leave false impressions. I agree with Brad K.

  • Paula

    Not sure myself. I guess ‘creative license’ could apply here, but pairing blarney with fine fettle doesn’t quite ring true. To my ears, it’s a bit jarring, actually.

    Love your site. Thanks very much!

  • Nathan

    While the phrase is certainly uncommon, it is grammatically correct and therefore acceptable. I do not know, however, if a newspaper should write albeit grammatical headlines that cause readers to scratch their heads, or in your case, research the etymology of the words used.

    *You mistakenly typed ‘reaaders’ in your last line. We’re all sticklers here; I’m just looking out for you.

  • Norina

    Honestly, “in fine fettle” is not a phrase that I am familiar with, but it seems that the way it was used does not make sense. If the “blarney” was spoken to convince the DHS of Berghold’s intentions of securing a foster child, then I can’t imagine that it was “in good spirit”. That is the only interpretation of the words “in fine fettle” that could apply.

  • Maeve

    Nathan,
    Thanks. I seem to be committing more goofs than usual this month.
    Roll on 2009!

  • mand

    Personally i wouldn’t have noticed anything odd about ‘the Bergthold blarney was in fine fettle’. I use both terms all the time, esp ‘in fine fettle’. I’m British, which may make a difference! Very interesting to see the other responses here, as it surprises me others aren’t familiar with these words. (Readers may also like to see Douglas Harper’s explanation of fettle if it loads properly, which it doesn’t like to for me.)

    My understanding has always been that ‘blarney’, meaning flattery or nonsense chatter, comes from the Blarney Stone. As a tongue-tied child i used to wish i could visit and kiss that stone, cos i’d only been told the gift of the gab meant eloquence. The flattering/coaxing part wasn’t mentioned. ;0)

  • Kudzu

    I recommend that no-one actually kiss the stone; I am Irish and I know what the locals do to it!!!

  • mand

    …I’ll bear that in mind, then.
    Heh, heh, heh.

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