Who, what, why: When did 'fit' start to mean attractive?

People on exercise bikes Image copyright Thinkstock

The leader of a group representing Britain's public schools for girls has warned against using the word "fit" to describe sexual attractiveness as opposed to physical fitness. When did the slang meaning come about, asks Justin Parkinson.

The word "fit" has been used within the sporting world to describe being in a healthy physical condition since at least the mid-19th Century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But it was not long afterwards that it began to also denote a good-looking or desirable person.

In Henry Hawley Smart's 1884 horseracing novel From Post to Finish, one of the characters says: "I want my girl to look as fit as any of them." It appears still to have been in use in 1925, when novel Manhattan Transfer by Jon Dos Passos was published. One woman is described as "rather stumpy" and "businesslike looking", while another is told: "And you're as fit as you ever were. That's the way it goes."

But, according to slang dictionary compiler Jonathon Green, this usage of the adjective seems to have gone out of normal usage until the 1970s. "It's got an old heritage," he says. "But it looks like it returned via West Indian communities in London."

The author Alex Wheatle used the term "fit" to describe good-looking women in his novel Brixton Rock, set in 1979. "It's been in use for at least 40 years," he says. "I remember everyone I knew in London saying it. It was part of the culture. It was probably used in black communities in Birmingham and elsewhere too."

The usage spread beyond inner cities during the 1980s and 1990s. In 2004 the band The Streets released the hit song Fit But You Know It, satirising vanity. The term is now not solely used for females, with the expression "fit blokes" employed by women's magazines to describe desirable men.

But Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls' Day School Trust, thinks using "fit" as a synonym for "fanciable" puts girls off sport and that they should be free to get "pink in the face and tousled" without worrying. Wheatle's not sure it will work. "I don't think telling people not to use the word will make a difference," he says. "Slang is a wonderful gift to the English language. You can't just put words back in a box."

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