What in the world is a feghoot? A type of owl? A musical instrument? Don’t try looking in a dictionary, because it is one of those wonderfully quirky words that is not found in any dictionary — not even the exhaustive Oxford English Dictionary. A feghoot is a humorous short story or vignetter that ends in a pun of a proverb or well-known phrase. In short, a feghoot is a punny story. The father of the reshoot is American science fiction writer Reginald Brenor (1911–1992), who wrote under the pseudonym “Grendel Briarton” (an anagram of his name). Brenor had developed the idea for the punny story but didn’t have a name for it. One day he was playing Scrabble with his wife and arranged his letter tiles alphabetically: EFGHOOT. His wife noted that if he transposed the first two letters he ended up with a silly word: FEGHOOT. Eureka! Brenor had the name for his punny stories.
Brenor (writing as Briarton) introduced the world to the feghoot in a series of stories titled “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot” that appeared in the magazine Fantasy and Science Fiction from 1956 to 1973. Over the years, Briarton wrote hundreds of feghoots which also appeared in other popular magazines, including Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and Amazing Stories. Soon other famous authors, like Isaac Asimov, John Brunner, and Stephen King, caught the feghoot bug and began contributing punny stories. There have been two collections of Briarton’s feghoots — both are rare and very expensive.
Below is an example of a classic feghoot that ends with a clever pun on a well-known idiom from James Charlton’s shorter collection of feghoots, titled Bred Any Good Rooks Lately?
Flowers for Pachyderm by Mark Strand
As Franz Kafka awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a raging bull elephant. He charged around his room with his trunk sticking straight up and making loud trumpeting noises. The picture of the lady in furs came crashing down, the vase of anemones tipped over. Suddenly afraid that his family might discover him, Franz stuck his enormous head out of the window overlooking the courtyard. But it was too late. His parents and sisters had already been awakened by the racket, and rushed into his room. All of them gasped simultaneously as they stared at the great bulk of Franz’s rump. Then Franz pulled his head and turned toward them, looking sheepish. Finally, after an awkward couple of minutes in which no one spoke, Franz’s mother went over and rested her cheek against his trunk and said, “Are you ill, dear?” Franz let loose a bloodcurdling blast, and his mother slipped to the floor. Franz’s father was about to help her but noticed the anemones tipped over on the table. He picked them up and threw them out the window, saying, “With Franz like this, who needs anemones?”
If you enjoyed this essay, you might enjoy my book, Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf, based on my popular blog, Atkins Bookshelf. The blog explores the world of ideas — through books, movies, music, quotations, and the English language — for the intellectually curious. At the heart of Atkins Bookshelf is a lifelong love of books and literature; its goal is to educate, entertain, and inspire.
The book can be found here.
The blog can be found here.