Q&A: Faint vs feint

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have the faintest idea…

Q: Hi AWC, I was watching a boxing match the other day.

A: Ding ding.

Q: Um, okay. Anyway, the commentator was talking about the boxer’s ability to “faint” before punching the opposition with a mighty uppercut. I’m confused!

A: Is it because when you faint, you typically fall to the ground unconscious?

Q: Well, yes actually.

A: Are you sure you’re not “swooning”?

Q: What’s the difference?

A: Nothing, except “swoon” these days is reserved for that very special oxygen-starved reduced blood flow that relates to a state of ecstasy – typically in romantic contexts. In fact, the word “swoon” has origins with “sigh”.

Q: Okay, can we de-swoon this conversation and get back to boxing?

A: Sure, so what you’re hearing there is actually the word “feint”.

Q: I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.

A: A “feint” is what Macquarie Dictionary describes as “a movement made with the object of deceiving an adversary.”

Q: Ohhh, it must be related to “feign” – like “to feign an illness”, yeah?

A: That’s right. The verb “feint” dates back to the 1300s, directly from Old French and the meaning “false, lazy or lacking in courage”.

Q: Something every boxer wants to hear…

A: It was also, as you guessed, the same origin of the word “feign”. However, the actual noun relating specifically to a “pretend move” in something like boxing or football didn’t arrive until the 1680s.

Q: So I’m guessing the adjective “faint” must be older?

A: Yeah, it debuted back in the 1300s again – originally meaning feeble or exhausted. The term “faint-hearted” retains that “lack of courage” vibe today. By the 1600s, “faint” meant to “produce a feeble impression upon the senses”, such as a faint sound, smell or the faintest touch.

Q: So, what about the verb? When did people start fainting?

A: In the sense of losing consciousness, that meaning of “to faint” didn’t arrive until the 1400s. Before that, “to faint” was similar to “feint” in lacking courage or being lazy. Finally, during the 1800s, the noun “faint” (e.g., “my faint was sudden”) came to mean the same as “a swoon” – although the usage for both has faded.

Q: It has grown faint, you might say?

A: Hilarious.

Q: Okay, so to “faint” is to pass out, while to “feint” is what a boxer does when he or she is trying to be sneaky – to “feign a punch”. Lastly, the adjective “faint” can mean lacking in something such as boldness in drawing a faint line.

A: Correct.

Q: So riddle me this… why does my notebook say that it has “feint ruled lines”? Is it a typo?

A: Ah, well spotted.

Q: Thank you. I carry this notebook everywhere for moments like this.

A: What you’ve stumbled upon is actually the other meaning of “feint”, retained by the printing industry and more closely aligned with the earlier days when both words came from the same place. In this context, a “feint” is the lightest weight line used in printing.

Q: Similar to a featherweight boxer?

A: Well, technically you have things like bantamweight and flyweight boxers lower than that, but yes, the lightest “weight division” in printing. Etymology Online describes it simply as a trade spelling of faint among stationers and paper-makers”.

Q: So it really should be “faint” but paper-makers are just being stubborn and old-fashioned – bending the rules for their straight ruled lines.

A: If we were giving faint praise, we’d say good on them for staying true to history.

Q: There’s a fine line between one and the other.

A: A feint line even…


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