Regardless of whether you live in a big city or a small town, rural or urban area, hot or cold climate, coastal or inland, today’s word is a weather condition that virtually everyone has experienced. It’s been a device in the musical lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin (“A Foggy Day (in London Town)”), it’s been the premise of many horror films, such as John Carpenter’s “The Fog,” or, if you’re a resident of many places like Hamilton, NZ, Labrador, Canada, or, most notably, San Francisco (aka Fog City), it’s just a near-daily occurrence. Though we all may know it when we see it, let’s get a little further in depth and see what makes things foggy.
Though it may sound as if our word simply utilized the root word of fog and adds the suffix -y, meaning ‘having the characteristics of’, the truth is actually quite confusing. Our term foggy appeared at roughly the same time as what we would consider to be its root word, fog (with the same definition), meaning that our word fog was likely developed from foggy (a back-formation); however, it is likely (but unproven) that the word foggy might’ve originated from a different definition of fog. Still, for the typical understanding of the word and meaning ‘full of thick mist’, our term seems to be derived from an early Scandinavian source, which can be seen in the Old Icelandic fok, the Danish fog, and the Old Swedish fiuka, all of which varyingly mean ‘a type of spray, flurry, or windblown cloud of rain, snow, grass, sand, etc’.
As could be expected, the first use of our figurative term relates to a misty fog and appears in a translated version of the ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus’ Bibliotheca Historica (Historical Library), undertaken by poet and tutor to King Henry VIII, John Skelton around 1487, which mentions being: “Enkankred with the foggy mists of cloudy ignorance.”
Little more than 6 decades later, possibly due to the nature of animal fat and the cloudy, murky nature of fog, the term was initially (and rarely) used to define an unhealthy amount of fat, as can be seen in John Skelton’s The Tunnying of Elynour Rummyng, where around 1529, he writes: “All foggy fat she was.”
Adding to the muddled understanding, in the latter half of the century, we can see uses of the term which hearken back to the initial definition of the word fog, meaning something along the lines of a grassy pasture or mossy bog (and possibly the reasoning for the usage of the mist produced therein). Translating Otto Werdmüller’s The Treatise on Death and the Hope of the Faithful around 1555, Miles Coverdale gives the term a boggy/marshy meaning: “He that is fallen into a deep foggy well, and sticketh fast in it.” 30 years later, Leonard Mascall, in The First Booke of Cattell (Cattle), mentions in 1587 how: “Horses..will feed on foggie grass and such like.”
Though the word did deviate – possibly back to its origin – the long-term meaning would always be relative to fog. For example, in 1584, we can see the term becoming more generalized as simply any type of cloud formed of airborne particles, such as gas, smoke, etc.: George Peele in The Araygnement of Paris, A Pastorall, notes that: “King Priam’s palace waste with flaming fire, Whose thick and foggy smoke piercing the skie.” Less than a decade later, the lack of clarity caused by a fog became synonymous with people, concepts, and overall imprecision, as is shown in one of Henry Smith’s Sermons from around 1591, where he speaks that: “The belly..that is stuffed like a barrel, bringeth forth nothing but a drowsy mind, foggy thoughts,..and corrupt affections.”
By design, it seems as no surprise that the origin and initial usage of the word foggy is somewhat imprecise and open to interpretation, but maybe it makes more sense if you’re out on the moor or a grassy pasture or on the streets of San Francisco?