- A female fox.
- A woman regarded as quarrelsome, shrewish, or malicious.
[From dialectal alteration of Middle English fixen, from Old English fyxe.]vixenish vix'en·ish adj.
vixenishly vix'en·ish·ly adv.
vixenishness vix'en·ish·ness n.
WORD HISTORY Why does the word fox begin with f but its female counterpart, vixen, begin with v? The answer lies in English dialects. In the speech of Devon, Somerset, and Cornwall, counties of southern England, words that begin with the voiceless fricative sounds (f) and (s) are pronounced instead with voicing, as (v) and (z). (The local rendering of the county name Somerset, in fact, is "Zomerzet.") The voicing is due to a Middle English sound change and may have roots even earlier. At least three examples of this dialectal pronunciation have entered standard English: vat, vane, and vixen. The first of these is a variant of an earlier word fat; the pronunciation with (f) was still used in the 19th century before being displaced by the southern pronunciation (văt). Vane, which used to mean "flag," has a cognate in the German word for "flag," Fahne, showing the original f. Vixen, finally, represents the southern pronunciation of a word that goes back to Old English fyxe, the feminine of fox. It was formed by a change in the root vowel of fox and the addition of a suffix -e or -en. Besides being one of the rare southern English dialect forms to have come into standard English, vixen is also the only survival of this type of feminine noun in the modern language.