Foiled Again!

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A line associated with the 19th century mustache-twirling stage villains thwarted by the hero was “Curses! Foiled again!”

Foil as a verb meaning “to frustrate the efforts of” is popular with headline writers and journalists.

Netanyahu makes final push to foil Swedish plan to divide Jerusalem

No-shows foil Sunrise mayor’s payment plan for code violators

Police foil plan to kill Dawood’s brother

The verb originated as a hunting term meaning “to spoil a trace or scent by running over it,” from Old French fouler, “trample.” It took on its modern meaning of spoiling someone’s plans in the 1660s.

Foil as a noun meaning “a thin sheet of metal,” comes from a French word for “leaf,” modern French feuille. The sense of “metallic food wrap” dates from 1946.

In fiction, a “foil character” is a secondary character used to point up certain traits in a main character. In Hamlet, for example, Laertes acts as a foil to Hamlet. Whereas Hamlet hesitates to avenge his father’s death, Laertes is quick to seek vengeance for the death of his sister. In Macbeth, the loyal, law-abiding Banquo serves as a foil to ambition-crazed Macbeth. Macbeth murders to win the crown. Banquo does nothing and becomes the father of kings. This idea of the word foil as “contrast” comes from the practice of backing a gem with metal foil to make it shine more brightly. Shakespeare used it in this sense in Henry IV, Part I. The future Henry V is a dissolute prince. In a soliloquy he anticipates changing his ways when he becomes king. He thinks that his subjects will appreciate his reign more because they’ll have his rotten youth to compare it with:

My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

This use of the noun foil to mean “contrast” is a favorite with political writers:

Republicans make President Obama foil in state races

Crist Uses His Old Party as a New Foil: He has used the Republican-led state legislature as a conservative foil to increase his appeal among centrist and Democratic voters.

Ehrlich welcomes Palin as a foil: Ehrlich’s camp is embracing Palin’s move as an opportunity to emphasize the former governor’s more moderate profile.

Both noun and verb are used playfully here:

Man’s foil theft plan foiled at Home Depot: A man who tried to foil the theft detection devices at Home Depot with aluminum foil learned Saturday that his scheme would not work.

Foil meaning “a light fencing weapon” is of uncertain origin.

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4 thoughts on “Foiled Again!”

  1. Webster gives etymology connecting foil to blade:

    Middle English, leaf, from Anglo-French fuille, foille (from Latin folia, plural of folium) & fuil, from Latin folium — more at blade

    This seems like it would be an obvious reason for the fencing term.

  2. Possibly, but here’s what OED gives for the etymology of “foil” as a fencing blade:

    [Of obscure origin.
    Usually regarded as f. FOIL v.1, and as denoting etymologically ‘a sword with the point foiled or blunted.’ But the vb. does not appear to have meant ‘to blunt’: the reading of the quarto in Oth. I. iii. 270, even if genuine, does not admit of this interpretation. Another suggestion is that the phrase at foils originally belonged to FOIL n.2 in the sense of parrying, and that the name of the instrument was evolved from the phrase. It is noteworthy that FOIN n. occurs in 17th c. in the sense of foil; possible (in spite of the want of evidence) this goes back to the 16th c, so that foil might be an etymologizing alteration of foin, after FOIL v.1 That the word is, by some far-fetched association, a transferred use of FOIL n.1 a leaf (cf. F. fleuret fencing foil, lit. ‘floweret’, the button being compared to a bud) is a possibility for which at present there is no evidence.]

  3. “Whereas Hamlet hesitates to avenge his father’s death, Laertes is quick to seek vengeance for the death of his sister.”

    That’s in error! Apart from that, though Laertes acts as a foil, the weapon with which he kills Hamlet, and which kills him, is a foil.

    Laertes: …….. have I a noble father lost;
    A sister driven into desperate terms,
    ………………… but my revenge will come.

    Laertes and the King plan Hamlet’s murder by various means:
    1. an unbated foil
    2. poison on the foil tip
    3. a poisoned chalice.

    These plans to kill Hamlet are completed in every detail but in no way whatsoever are they in response to Ophelia’s death. They can’t be, for a very simple reason. When they are made Ophelia is still alive!

    A few moments after the King and Laertes have finalised their murder plans, the Queen enters to announce that Ophelia has just drowned.

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