Fie, fih, foh, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman
What's the meaning of the phrase 'Fie, fih, foh, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman'?
A nonsense rhyme, usually heard as part of the Jack The Giant Killer fable.
What's the origin of the phrase 'Fie, fih, foh, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman'?
The words are nonsense and the phrase has no allusory meaning. Apart from when quoting Shakespeare or Jack the Giant Killer, there's little reason ever to use it. As with many early English expressions the spelling is arbitrary and there are many variants in print:
Fee, fa, foh, fum
Fee, fi, fum
Fie, fih, foh, fum
Fee, fa, fum and so on.
It is best known from the English fable - Jack the Giant Killer, which was first published in 1711, although the elements of the story were undoubtedly repeated verbally long before then:
I smell the blood of an Englishman.
Be he alive or be he dead
I'll grind his bones to make my bread.
The source is anonymous and the date is unknown. The earliest citation of it in print that I know of is in a play by George Peele, The Old Wives' Tale, which was printed in England in 1595:
Fee, fa, fum, here is the Englishman,
Conquer him that can, came for his lady bright,
To prooue himselfe a knight,
And win her loue in fight.
It is also referred to a year later by the English dramatist Thomas Nashe, in Have with you to Saffron-walden, 1596 - this version being the first to use the 'I smell the blood of an Englishman' line that is now well-known from Jack the Giant Killer:
"O, tis a precious apothegmatical Pedant, who will find matter enough to dilate a whole day of the first invention of Fy, fa, fum, I smell the blood of an English-man".
Let's finish with Shakespeare's alternate version, from King Lear, 1605:
"Child Roland to the dark tower came,
His word was still, Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man."
See other phrases and sayings from Shakespeare.
[My thanks to Peter Lukacs, ElizabethanDrama.org for the 1595 citation.]