“To fist” or not “to fist,” that is the question

Sometimes word choices are technically correct…but they just plain bug me. Case in point: last year I read a couple of books where the word “fisted” was used as a verb. Frequently. Noticeably often. It really bothered me.

I couldn’t think of a single instance where I’d seen the word “fisted” used as a verb like this before. “She fisted her hands on her hips”? Really?! Is this A Thing? Since when? I’ve been able to read for about 30 years, I studied English literature in university, and the only use of “fisted” as a verb that I’ve seen up until now was used in reference to an activity that would NOT have been approved for inclusion in this YA series (come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used in writing, period. I just know what it means…). And yet here it was, showing up not just once, but repeatedly. And so, of course, being the giant language nerd I am, I decided to investigate.

Discovery #1: no one else has noticed this phenomenon, at least not when it comes to this particular series. Or, if they did, they didn’t feel inclined to comment on it publicly. There wasn’t a single blog post or article about it. Dammit. Maybe it IS just me.

Discovery #2: If this is “A Thing,” no one is talking about it very much. The only post I found about “fisting” in general (with Google Safe Search parameters on, thankyouverymuch) was this post about “verbing”**: http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/09/to-verb-or-not-to-verb.html

Verbing is a fascinating (or infuriating—see my footnote below) topic. But is “fisting” a common target for verbing? Is the verb “to fist” a commonly used construction?

After some research, I’ve concluded that this use of the word “fist” as a verb does appear to be legitimate in this context. Sort of.

My Canadian Oxford Dictionary (yes, there’s such a thing) lists the following verb-form definitions: 1. Strike with the fist. 2. Clench (the hand, the fingers) into a fist. And Merriam Webster lists the following verb definitions: 1. To grip with the fist 2. To clench into a fist. In both cases, the second definition works with “she fisted her hands on her hips.”

The Collins Dictionary offered “to hit with the fist” in British English, or “to hit with the fist,” and  “to grasp or handle” in American English. Neither of those verb definitions fit the “she fisted her hands on her hips” example, but there was an instance where the character “fisted a lock of her hair,” so I guess that final definition fits.

Dictionary.com presents four noun-y definitions before offering “5. To make (one’s hand) into a fist; 6. To grasp in the fist.” Those definitions both work.

So it looks like “fisted” IS a thing. I’ve apparently been reading the wrong books. All the wrong ones. For my entire life. Huh.

But—and here’s the key—just because it can be legitimately used like that doesn’t mean that it should be.

“She fisted a lock of her hair”? “She fisted her hands on her hips”? My mind will always and forever go, in the words of a friend, “somewhere blue” when I hear it, and I know I’m not the only one (I know this because I asked my friends on Facebook. You know, like a true scientist would).

It may not be grammatically wrong, but it is distracting, and part of my job as an editor is to find potential distractions and eliminate them. Sometimes that’s a question of correcting grammatical mistakes. Other times, like this one, it’s more subjective.

The fact is that “fisted” is just, well, kind of ugly. How about “She clenched her fists” or “she planted her hands on her hips”?  And maybe try “She tugged a lock of her hair,” “She pulled at her hair,” or even “She ran her fingers through her hair, tangling it until it resembled a tumbleweed” if you want to get fancy. I mean, really freaking anything is better than “fisted.”

As the author of the SleuthSayers post put it,

“I’m not so sure about “fist.” I’ve been seeing it used as a verb more and more lately, especially in erotic scenes. Usually, it’s a man who does the fisting, and it’s a woman’s hair that gets fisted–“Lance pressed his body against Desiree’s and fisted her hair, declaring he could not bear to leave her that night.” Well, gosh. First of all, I have trouble picturing exactly what Lance is doing to Desiree’s hair. He’s grabbing hunks of it, I guess, and forming his hands into fists around the hunks. If that’s what he’s doing, couldn’t we just say “clutched”? I have a feeling some writers choose “fist” because they think it sounds sexier and more forceful, because it hints at a trace of coercion, a smidgen of violence. If that’s the appeal of “fist,” maybe it’s a verb we can do without. Let’s have Lance stroke Desiree’s hair while keeping a respectful distance from her and suggesting they discuss their plans for the evening. If we want to get sexier, he can always finger a tendril.”


The series I read didn’t use “fisted” in an erotic way at all. Not once. It was, as far as I can remember, always one particular character “fisting” parts of herself (hips and hair specifically). Someone may have fisted an inanimate object at some point, but I’m pretty sure that’s it. So what did the author intend when she chose the word “fisted”? Violence and anger? Strength? Nothing in particular? What exactly was she going for (over and over and over and OVER again)?

Also, how did the editor not notice that the word was being used so often (which, trust me, it was), let alone that it had a “blue” meaning that could be distracting? It got to the point where I was watching for it instead of paying complete attention to the story—surely not the ideal situation for the final novel in a series.

This is what I love about editing: it’s not just “is this correct?” it’s also “is this the best way to communicate the author’s intended meaning?” and “is the author doing anything that might distract the reader?” That’s the stuff that puts a smile on my face. In this case, I would have written the author a note pointing out the potential distraction (and the repeated usage) and suggesting that she find a way to rephrase things.

**Verbing is taking a word that is usually a noun (impact, effort, architect) and making it into a verb (impacting, efforting, architecting). It happens a lot in business communication (can we talk about “to liaise” for a second, or am I the only one who loathes it?). Verbing is definitely A Thing. And, in some cases, it’s not a good thing. (Liaise….blech)

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