July 25, 2014
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To be in fine fettle is to be in good condition (generally if used in relation to objects) or in good health (if used in relation to yourself or other humans). The alliteration makes it a pleasant idiom. But what is a fettle and where did the phrase come from?
The origin of the word fettle is fairly obscure and, as is often the way with these things, there is no definitive answer. It is thought that it owes its origin to the Old English noun fetel which is a belt and which itself derives its meaning from the German fessel meaning a chain or band. So, probably, the original sense of the noun was to convey the sense of girding yourself up, summoning up energy as if for some task.
At some point in its usage it morphed into a verb and had the connotation of putting something into order or to tidy up. The role of a belt is to tidy up the area where your upper and lower clothing meets and it kind of makes sense that a verb could emerge from a noun describing a type of belt. A domestic servant speaking in a Yorkshire dialect in Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey, published in 1847, uses it in this context, “But next day, afore I’d gotten fettled up – for indeed, Miss, I’d no heart to sweeping an’ fettling an’ washing pots; so I sat me down i’ th’ muck….”
When the term was in more common usage you would hear a number of adjectives associated with it including the antonym bad fettle. The superlative appears in Jack London’s John Barleycorn, published in 1913, “Those fifty-one days of fine sailing and intense sobriety had put me in splendid fettle.”
Fettle as a verb has survived in certain regional dialects. In the north of England speakers use it in the context of repairing or making something. In Australia a fettler is a railway maintenance worker, repairing and putting back in order the railway tracks buckled by the Aussie sun.
It has also survived in some manufacturing industries. In metallurgy the process of cleaning metal castings by knocking and scraping off unnecessary projections on the surface of the cast is known as fettling. In ceramics the process of fettling involves the removal of two seam lines left after joining two moulds.
It is undoubtedly this sense – where something which is initially imperfect is improved in condition – that lends itself to this quaint English idiom.