“Fee Fi Fo Fum” – Meaning & Origin Explained

You may relate the nonsensical idiom, “Fee Fi Fo Fum” solely to fairytales. However, many aren’t aware of its origin or how it’s been utilized in novels and scripts alike. This article will take a closer look at this particular saying, its origins and potential meaning.

What Does “Fee Fi Fo Fum” Mean?

Although this idiom sounds quite nonsensical, many have wondered if it holds any significance. However, it’s generally believed to have originated with no meaning – merely being the remark of a terrifying giant. For children, the saying is often considered to be intertwined with the beat of the giant’s footsteps.

fee fi fo fum meaning

However, since utilized by Shakespeare in his play, “King Lear”, this idiom may have taken on somewhat of an actual meaning.

In this version, Shakespeare has used the word “fie”, which being archaic, was used to express a general feeling of disapproval. The word “fum” has occasionally been interpreted as being “fume”, or to fill with anger. Lastly, the formations of “fo” and “foh” have been potentially related to the expression “pooh!”, showing dissatisfaction.

All of these words are utilized throughout the script, in other contexts than the combined phrase of “Fie foh fum”. This gives way to the belief that the meaning was intentional, or that Shakespeare saw fit to find meaning in an otherwise meaningless phrase.

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What is the Origin “Fee Fi Fo Fum”?

Jack and the Giant Killer

The credit of the creation of this saying is owed to the Cornish folklore legend of “Jack and the Giant Killer” – later renamed “Jack and the Beanstalk”. This is because the giant, who wishes to murder Jack, first udders the phrase that is now famously known.

“Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead. I’ll mash his bones to make my bread.”

Despite not being publically published until 1711, it’s believed that this folklore was in existence for a much longer period. Having originated as Cornish legend, it had been adapted to an English story before any other known publication of the idiom.

Shakespeare’s King Lear

However, the saying was utilized similarly in Shakespeare’s play, King Lear. King Lear is believed to have been written somewhere between 1603-1606. As mentioned, Shakespeare utilizes both the phrase “fie-fi-fo-fum” and the words individually.

“Fie foh fum. I smell the blood of a British Man.”

Most still believe Shakespeare was alluding to a reference of the idiom used in Jack and the G K folklore. This is due to the folklore being in existence and told frequently for years prior to Shakespeare writing this script.

Thomas Nashe’s “Have With You to Saffron-Walden”

Yet another use of this idiom comes from English dramatist, Thomas Nashe’s work “Have With You to Saffron-Walden”. This script was originally published in 1596, coming before King Lear.

“O, tis a precious Pendant, who will find matter enough to dilate a whole day of the first intention of Fy fa fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.”

While this script was written before King Lear and the public publication of Jack and the Giant Killer, most still agree that the original influence of the idiom was the Cornish folklore. It’s easy to note the similarities in the use of the idiom in all three publications.

Examples of How to Use FEE FI FO FUM in a Sentence

As Fee Fi Fo Fum is an idiom and not a commonly used phrase, it’s not often heard or seen in present-day conversations or writing. Much of the time, this phrase is only used in reference to either Jack and the Beanstalk or King Lear – as shown in previous quotes. However, there are ways you can conversationally use this idiom if you see fit.

  • Father; “Son, Michael has just arrived! He’s here visiting from England.”
  • Young Boy; “Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman!”
  • Michael; “Hi there, it’s me, the Englishman! Are you a giant?”
  • Young Boy; “Fee Fi Fo Fum! Whether he’s alive or he’s dead, I’ll grind his bones and make my bread!”
  • Father; “The two of you are just too funny!”

Is “Fee Fi Fo Fum” One Word?

Fee Fi Fo Fum is considered to be an idiom or a phrase. For context, an idiom is a group of words established by usage of having meaning, not deducible by the words individually. This means that’s the words together share a meaning, but alone, don’t.

You’ll see the phrase written as;

  • “Fee Fi Fo Fum” or
  • “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum”

Both of which are correct ways to write this idiom, however, neither is considered to be one word.