fay, fey
Fay is a literary word for fairy. Used attributively (before a noun), it has the meaning ‘fairy-like’:

• When she made formal use of figures in her landscapes, they were somewhat mannered, almost fay children —Listener, 1962.

Fey is an unrelated word of great antiquity originally meaning ‘fated to die soon’, a meaning it still has in Scottish English. In due course it came to denote a kind of frenzied excitement associated with impending death, and in extended use it means ‘strange, other-worldly; elfin, whimsical’:

• She's got that fey look as though she's had breakfast with a leprechaun —D. Burnham, 1969

• Scraggy hair, fey smile, dress like a wet dishcloth. Another example of why being too thin really isn't sexy —Times, 2007.

In this last meaning it makes close contact with fay, but properly used fey still has implications of imminent death and the supernatural, whereas fay inhabits the land of dreams. In speech, of course, they are pronounced the same way and are indistinguishable.

Modern English usage. 2014.


Look at other dictionaries:

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