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. Though heard less often than plain old fooster, it is used to reliably memorable effect.
Edit: 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.