A fainéant is an idler and a sluggard. Somehow you can guess that without bothering to dig out your dictionary. Fainéants sound lazy. Why? Why, dear inactive reader, did you suspect immediately that a fainéant was a lazybones, a lie-a-bed, and a lotus eater
Perhaps it was the suggestion of faint, with the éan slumbering redundantly in the middle. You pictured the poor fainéant so shocked by the threat of work that he had to go and lie down with some smelling salts and a good novel. Or perhaps you detected in fainéant a whisper, a suggestion, of fain. ‘I would fain do that,’ says the fainéant, ‘but I have this terribly important pillow that I’ve promised to warm.’
Both suggestions rest dreamily upon the word like a warm linguistic duvet. Then you see an older spelling and the etymology seems to spring out at you.
Is there no difference [asked Samuel Ward in 1618] between busibodies and tell-clocks, between fac-totum and fay’t neant?
‘Aha!’ you think, believing yourself to have unravelled the fainéant’s sleepy secrets. ‘A fainéant is a fait neant, a French do-nothing! It is like the Italian dolce far niente: it is sweet to do nothing.’ And with that you are satisfied and relapse into a deeper slumber.
Yet still, dear reader, you are wrong: wrong because the French themselves were (as the French ever are) wrong. They thought that a fainéant was a fait neant because that’s how it sounded to them. Yet the origin is hiding in a more ancient bedroom. A faignant, in Old French, was sluggard who feigned some excuse (French faindre) and feign relates to feint whose meaning meandered from lie to lazy to weak to faint, which means that, in a way, dear drowsy reader, you were right all along.
The original fainéants were the rois faineants the French kings of the late Merovingian dynasty who did nothing at all and earned themselves marvellous monikers like Louis the Sluggard.
Or as Catullus put it:
Otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est;
Otio exsultas nimiumque gestis;
Otium et reges prius et beatas
Which translates very roughly as:
Laziness shall be my end,
Laziness, my dearest friend,
Who wrecks without remorse or pity
Honoured king and holy city.