Foostering around with an Irish word

Fooster is one of those words much loved in Hiberno-English but largely restricted to it, not having crossed to wider dialects as galore and smithereens did.* Derived from Irish fústar /’fuːst̪ər/, and alternatively spelt foosther to approximate Irish phonology, it has a meaning more easily described in general terms than precisely pinned down.

To fooster is to fiddle around or fuss with something. It’s a kind of agitated activity: busy but commonly aimless or inefficient. You can fooster with or over something, fooster around or about, or just fooster.

Curiously, there seems to be no associated Irish verb. Niall Ó Dónaill’s Irish-English dictionary translates fústar as ‘fuss, fidgetiness’ and fústaire as a ‘fussy, fidgety person’; fústráil is the act of fussing or fidgeting, while fústrach is the adjectival form.

Sometimes fooster has slightly pejorative connotations, implying mild disapproval: a parent or teacher might give out to a child for foostering. But the word is often emotionally neutral. It has broad appeal and is used in a wide range of ways (see below); Irish culture writer John Byrne called his blog Fústar in its honour.

Since being imported into Irish English – by Sheridan Le Fanu in 1847, says the OED – fooster has been inflected per English norms, giving rise for example to the adjective foostery. Fooster itself doubles as a noun form, but the gerund foostering is more usual in my experience. There’s a strong hint of phonaesthesia about all of these.

Here’s some literature showing different forms and contexts for the word. A few I’ve read; the others I found on Google Books:

What is he foostering over that change for? Sees me looking. Eye out for other fellow always. (James Joyce, Ulysses)

She foostered in her bag for the key. (Mary McCarthy, Remember Me)

All the while he contemplated the enterprise of his neighbours he was aware of Rose foostering at the new gas-cooker behind him. (Maura Treacy, Made in Heaven)

I fooster for an hour or more / not knowing what I am doing. (Paul Durcan, Christmas Day)

I hastily averted this smile, fearing it was too ghastly, and quickly foostered out a pack of cigarettes. (Flann O’Brien, Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn)

Well in any case he began to fooster around the house. (Flann O’Brien, Hair of the Dogma)

I let her fooster around with kettles and whatnot. (Marian Keyes, The Mystery of Mercy Close)

Kitty foostered about the office, unwilling to sit at her father’s place yet. (Pauline McLynn, Missing You Already)

My mother was foostering around dusting everything, whether it was dusty or not, the way that she did when she’d nothing else to keep her busy. (Gerard Whelan, War Children)

Thus, if Larry cleared a path through the snow-drift, or brought home the hen that had foosthered off with herself down the bog… (Jane Barlow, Irish Idylls)

A capable piece of work with full lips and plum-sleek hair, who was almost pretty as a girl but too foostery, too nervous, and was always outshone by the louder, gayer classmates who liked her in a pitying way. (Joseph O’Connor, Ghost Light)

Mr. Sullivan slid into the car and foostered around under the seat trying to move it back from the steering wheel. (Kevin Holohan, The Brothers’ Lot)

…she foostered with the paper until Tom showed her how to fold it just so. (Patrician Scanlan, Two For Joy)

‘Holy Virgin, Saint Anthony, an’ Nebechadnaser,’ says the priest, tumblin’ his robe over his head wid the foosther he was in… (Sheridan Le Fanu, The Fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O’Brien)

He thrust in his no doubt grimy hand and foostered about and his fingers touched on something small and hard, and he gripped it, and pulled it out. (Sebastian Barry, Annie Dunne)

The caddy always seemed to be foostering as they headed for the first tee, and Harrington realized that foostering made him tense. (Henry Shefflin, The Autobiography)

Not only was Brando foostering around the with script but he was also displaying a curious inability to either learn or remember his lines. (Michael Sheridan and Anthony Galvin, A Man Called Harris: The Life of Richard Harris)

It seems even Marlon Brando was apt to fooster.

One last thing: malafooster (mallafooster, malafoosther, mollafoosdar, etc.) is a related Irish English word and means to give someone a serious beating. It comes from French mal ‘bad’ + fústar (Edit: Or maybe not – see Vox Hiberionacum for discussion). Though heard less often than plain old fooster, it is used to reliably memorable effect.

A related word, common in northern counties, is footer or foother /’fuːt̪ər/, from Irish fútar. The Ulster-Scots Academy says to footer aboot is to ‘put the time in doing trivial tasks; fiddle and waste time, etc.’ and ties it to Old French foutre (h/t Fergus Kelly).

Share’s Slanguage and Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English gloss this word as implying clumsy or bungling activity, but there is clearly some overlap with foosther. John Lynch’s novel Red Sky in Morning has a couple of examples:

Well, for one, yer always futtering about with that dirty ribbon.

He walked to the firepit and futhered with his hands and he looked to the west…

See my archive of Hiberno-English posts for more along these lines.

*

* Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary notes the use of fooster in Cornwall but nowhere else outside Ireland.

9 Responses to Foostering around with an Irish word

  1. coco says:

    It reminds me of the word “futz”, which M-W Unabridged says is “perhaps partial modification, partial translation of Yiddish arumfartsn, literally, to fart around. First Known Use: circa 1930”

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, and even fart around is relevant here, along with fuss, fidget, faff, dialectal fooch, fool (around), etc. There seems to be a constellation of similar sound-meanings here.

  2. Debunker says:

    We tend to say footering in the north.

  3. Debunker says:

    I’ve never heard of fútar in Irish, though I’ve certainly seen and heard fústar. In northern dialects of Irish we tend to use méaradradh le (=méirínteacht) the way you would use foostering, to mean that you are playing with something aimlessly or pointlessly

  4. […] Stan Carey has previously looked at Hiberno-English ‘Foostering’ examples of usage and notes that […]

  5. […] Fooster (often foosther to evoke vernacular pronunciation) is a verb denoting fiddling or fidgeting, a kind […]

  6. ktschwarz says:

    That “foostering” in Ulysses was miscorrected to “fostering” in all editions of the book up to 1984, though it was “foostering” in the initial magazine serialization. Maybe some typist didn’t recognize the Hiberno-English word and substituted a more common English word? And “fostering” still remains in reprints as recent as the Penguin Modern Classics edition of 2000.

    Fans of Sentence First might enjoy visiting the annotation page at The Joyce Project, which cites both this post and the post on “rere” while explaining the burst of Irishisms in the “Lotus Eaters” chapter.

    The OED hasn’t updated the entry for “fooster” yet, except for the pronunciation, where they give audio clips not only for standard British and US pronunciation, but also Irish. They’ve been making an effort to give proper regional pronunciations for regional words, since as chief editor Michael Proffitt (who’s Scottish) says, “some of these anglicized transcriptions seemed ersatz” (see his update note).

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks very much for the detailed comment. The word’s misspelt fate in Ulysses was unknown to me (or, if once noticed, forgotten). I’m a little surprised that fostering survived so long in so many editions. The Joyce Project’s note on it is very useful and interesting – as indeed is the project as a whole.

      I’ve been impressed by the OED’s outward-facing efforts to improve its coverage of regional varieties of English, including in its pronunciation files. I also appreciate how straightforwardly it has acknowledged shortcomings in that department and invited help from users around the world to supplement the professionals.

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