A Foible Fable

Say, you're at a party and the conversation turns to, I don't know... swords. "Never, ever has that happened to me before", is probably what you're thinking right now. Yeah, I get it. But, you know how it is, guys have a few drinks, machismo mans up, weaponry fits the bill, and with the gun controversy front and center--the consensus leaning towards taking it down a notch or two--sharp objects seem the appropriate way to go. C'mon, I know what I'm doin'; work with me here... So, anyway, sword talk is in full swing and, inevitably, the question gets raised, "What's the weaker part of a sword blade, ya' know, between the middle and the point, again?", as if it's well known, the inquirer having it on the tip of their tongue, unable to conjure it up. "Can this convo be more random?" you elicit out loud, scratching your head, wondering where the hell this is going. Bear with me; almost there... And, of course, someone immediately blurts out "foible" 'cause, like, that's the right answer. And now, I can tell, you're thinking hard about how you only have so much discretionary free time and wasting it on supposed sword banter at a fictitious party might not be the way to go.

And yet, you're still here (too smug?). And therein lies the point; the whole smug approach to this piece. Truth is, I get a little smug when I write. That's one of my foibles. And yes, the kind of foible that fits the definition that we're more aware of, ya' know, unless you're some kind of sword freak. So, to break it down, "foible" is a French word (big surprise; how they love their vowels, oui?). It's derived from "faible" indicating weakness, referring to a minor flaw or eccentricity in a person's behavior or character which contributes to their uniqueness, adding a touch of charm to their overall persona along the way. In other words, a cute little word that not only excuses a person's faulty conduct but elevates it to the point where it's actually appealing. A word that practically insists it be accompanied by an endearing smile whenever it's uttered... How smug.

I realize that proclaiming myself a scholar would not be me exhibiting a foible as much as me being an out-and-out liar. I'm not. But I did scout out the etymology of the word and discovered its earliest known usage was in the 1640s by English diplomat, Edward Herbert, borrowing from the French. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the exact example but in checking up on this guy I discovered he was a bit of an over-achiever, listed as a British courtier, soldier, diplomat, author, historian, poet, and religious philosopher, known as “the father of English Deism.” He matriculated at Oxford and was made Knight of the Bath by King James in 1603, hobnobbed with the well-connected and went to France in 1608 to hang with Constable de Montmorency and meet with King Henry IV. Yeah, all well and good, but here's where it gets interesting: On his return to England, he claims to have been held "in great esteem both in court and city, many of the greatest desiring my company."... Well, well, well, pretentious much?

Did I mention that another one of my foibles is that, although having no formal training, I fancy myself as quite the amateur sleuth and, deducing from Mr. Ed's lofty opinion of his stature, I'm thinkin' these types of the aforementioned boasts were commonplace throughout the ensuing decades, no doubt rubbing some people the wrong way. Ergo, I envision a scenario where, forced to think quickly at a posh soiree one evening, this wordsmith--borrowing from the French, as stated earlier--countered accusations by a fellow royal of exhibiting signs of out-and-out narcissism with a feigned laugh and the retort, "My good man, what you witnessed there was but a mere foible; a charming little eccentricity that helps define who I am." And, just like that, this pompous egocentric blowhard quieted his accuser and added a brand new word to our collective vocabulary.

So there you have it, a plausible--albeit not quite factual--scenario as to how the word "foible" made its way into the world lexicon. And yeah, I can see where you might not be entirely sold on this narrative but give it time; you'll come around... Oh, and a couple more quick facts about "foibles": They can result as a reaction to environmental stimuli or be genetically predisposed. And its frequency of use today is about 0.6 occurrences per million words (huh, maybe I am a scholar after all).