Feeling fancy(work) free...
June 2, 2010 5:48 AM   Subscribe

Calling all English word-nerds and/or Japanese translators: have you ever heard the term "fancywork" used to refer to male genitalia?

A friend of mine who is Japanese sent me an email this morning, where she asked me to look at the definition for "fancywork" (in an English -> Japanese dictionary). The first definition makes sense and refers to needlework and handmade crafts and whatnot, but the second is "Penis, male genitalia." (ペニス、男性器).

She wants to know if this is possible or something strange. I'm an American so perhaps this is another country's English usage for "fancywork?" I mean, that could be plausible. My googling is leading me down into a morass of bad porn when I try to research this though.

Alternatively, could this just be some strange mistake? Any chance some trickster made this up when translating the dictionary entry into Japanese? (Part of me thinks that would be great, albeit highly unlikely).

Thanks hive-mind!
posted by dubitable to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Just to confirm, is the Japanese ファンシーワーク?
posted by vincele at 6:17 AM on June 2, 2010

vincele: You can see an instance of the mystery definition appearing here.

I can't find any explanation for the direct genitalia reference, but the OED does have this mention: "b. slang. In phrase ‘to take in fancy work: to be addicted to secret prostitution’ (Farmer)," which would explain at least the sexual connotation.

Any farmers care to comment?
posted by caaaaaam at 6:25 AM on June 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ha, caa*m, that "Farmer" is credit to John Stephen Farmer, who wrote the slang dictionary from which the OED editors learned that sense.
posted by xueexueg at 6:28 AM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ah, thanks xueexueg. My imagination got the better of me.

(That is far less exciting.)
posted by caaaaaam at 6:33 AM on June 2, 2010

I'm a native British English speaker, and have never heard this usage. I can't even think of a euphemism that's particularly close in sound or meaning. The best I can come up with is "tassel", which is related to needlework and was used by a young Scottish character in an Iain Banks novel. I've never heard or seen that used outside that novel, but I haven't spent much time in Scotland so I wouldn't want to guess how common it is. Referring to male genitalia as "crown jewels" isn't very common, but is something that most Brits would recognise and seems like it could be conceptually linked to "fancywork".

I have heard "taking in fancy work" as a reference to prostitution (although I think I've seen "taking in sewing" or "taking in laundry" more), but it's archaic and definitely not in common usage now. A change from that to your mystery definition seems plausible, but it's not one I've ever come across. Perhaps I just need to read older, smuttier books.
posted by metaBugs at 6:34 AM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: caaaaaam, thanks for the follow-up link--that ALC entry is exactly the one's she's using (sorry I forgot to link directly in the original post!).
posted by dubitable at 6:40 AM on June 2, 2010

Sorry to keep posting, but this book (Slang and its Analogues Past and Present) has a definition with slightly more explanation of the prostitute angle (and which also explains metaBugs' "taking in sewing" and "taking in laundry" above):

Fancy-work. To take in fancy work, verb. phr. (popular)— To play the prostitute on the sly; in the language of venery, “to work for one's living and do the naughty for one's clothes.” Said of women (as milliners, dressmakers, shop girls, and so forth) in receipt of low wages yet dressing well and having plenty of money. “How does she do it?” “Oh! She takes in fancy-work!” c.f. Fancy-house and Ride
posted by caaaaaam at 6:52 AM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: From: A dictionary of slang and unconventional English By Eric Partridge (pg 378). fancywork: - genitals including the pubic hair usu. of the male parts: feminine euph. s C20 'He must be a sexual maniac; he persists in showing his fancy work'.
posted by adamvasco at 6:53 AM on June 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've never heard this word before in my life, but I think it would probably be an easily understood meaning in-context (if the sentence was referring a man's funkystuff, if you know what I mean). You can use nearly anything as a euphemism in context though, so even if someone did use that as a euphemism for junk, it hardly seems to warrant a place in the dictionary entry.

In what context did your colleague find the word?
posted by Gordafarin at 6:58 AM on June 2, 2010

Well I never! Well done, adamvasco! Never heard that usage before. But the "tassel" mentioned by metaBugs: that was our family code for penis when I was very small. That was growing up in Yorkshire (although my mother was from Sussex, so I don't know where she got it from, north or south).
posted by aqsakal at 6:58 AM on June 2, 2010

Response by poster: In what context did your colleague find the word?

So the background is: she does a lot of handicrafts, and is an English speaker and avid learner, and was poking around for an English equivalent to "手芸", whereupon she found "fancywork," whereupon she looked that up and found "ペニス、男性器."

I told her "handicraft" was probably what she was looking for anyways, but this whole thing is hilarious.
posted by dubitable at 7:08 AM on June 2, 2010

I'm also interested to know where your friend found this usage. I work on the history of Japanese prostitution from the 19th century-present, and I've never seen fancywork used in this way either. Very interesting.
posted by vincele at 7:08 AM on June 2, 2010

on preview: please disregard above comment. Thanks for the explanation.
posted by vincele at 7:09 AM on June 2, 2010

Best answer: After some digging:
There's a reference to "fancy work" as a euphemism for male genitals on page 69 of this journal [PDF] (in the article "Linguistic Power: Cultural beliefs embedded in genital slang")

This sex dictionary says the word is 20th century UK in origin.
posted by Gordafarin at 7:09 AM on June 2, 2010

Response by poster: FYI adamvasco, while I don't doubt your find, that link is crapping out for me and showing the wrong definition--it's all around the definition for box (unless maybe it's embedded in there and I'm not seeing it?).
posted by dubitable at 7:10 AM on June 2, 2010

Response by poster: Gordafarin: nice! Now we're getting to the bottom of this.

I can't wait to think up good penis jokes with this one...
posted by dubitable at 7:12 AM on June 2, 2010

Best answer: Get yourself to page 378 try this link. I recognized the phrase as being from an (archaic) nautical environment. "Fancy-work: To take in fancy work, to play the harlot." 1912 Slang and Colloquial English (including dictionary of the Canting Crew). So there you have it; Sailor talk.
posted by adamvasco at 8:14 AM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Very nice adamvasco. You guys rock. Ask MetaFilter for the win again.
posted by dubitable at 8:41 AM on June 2, 2010

Response by poster: (Follow up/bonus extra question for anyone who has a guess or actual knowledge of why this may be:) So, I've been thinking about it and I guess I finally realized that it makes no freaking sense to have this definition in a English -> Japanese dictionary. I mean, this is obviously not at all common usage, and it begs the question: why the heck did somebody put this definition in this dictionary?

By the way, I gave my friend a link to this thread and she said:

I followed what people discussed on metafilter.
Many thanks, Dave, this IS very very interesting.

It is quite impressive also that people can discuss so まじめ in such
early morning.(sorry I didn't realize it was very early morning for you)
and there was no agressive opinion at all.

We do have such QA sites in Japan, too, but the reaction is not this
fast.Maybe it's the difference of internet-population though...
Anyway, it was very impressive and fun.

Now, okay, I will safely ignore "fancywork" when I want to talk about
handicraft : )
Yeah, safe is bette than anythingr when I speak in a foreign language.

By the way, do you think I should report ALC that the second definition
is very strange?

Thanks again everyone!
posted by dubitable at 9:32 AM on June 2, 2010

why the heck did somebody put this definition in this dictionary?

Well, as we've seen, a slang dictionary has a definition for it. Slang is very often exactly the sort of thing that foreign speakers want in a dictionary.

I'm sure the editors of the translating dictionary worked their way through a slang dictionary (perhaps even the one linked above) and pulled what they considered important words. Obviously, slang for genitalia is important in any language, so they used that.

But, being non-native English speakers, they didn't realize that nobody ever, ever uses this particular slang.

Except me. From now on.
posted by Netzapper at 9:59 AM on June 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

why the heck did somebody put this definition in this dictionary?

Eijiro often has some really outlandish definitions, especially when it comes to slang terminology. I pity the poor J-E translator who is unaware of the actual usage of some of those terms (e.g. "sling one's hook"?).

At the same time, they're totally lacking in some more specialized vocabulary (such as some more complex financial terms).

You can contact EDP (the developers) if you think a particular definition is incorrect or misleading.
posted by armage at 5:36 PM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I pity the poor J-E translator who is unaware of the actual usage of some of those terms (e.g. "sling one's hook"?).

You just gave me a hilarious (in my mind at least) idea for a possible translation project.

Also, thanks for the contact link, armage.

Except me. From now on.

Netzapper, I shall also be using this term from now on. In fact, MetaFilter users, here is my last request from this thread: I entreat thee, go forth and from now on use the term "fancywork" to mean "penis." See how many people you can utterly confuse.
posted by dubitable at 8:30 PM on June 2, 2010

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