Verbal Energy

'I'm finna start training so hard …'

A new form of a familiar idiom shows how an Olympian went for the gold.

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    Gold medalist Claressa Shields of the United States participates in the medals ceremony after the women's final middleweight 75-kg gold medal boxing match at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Aug. 9, in London.
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Catching up with the reading of my magazines somewhat out of order after the upheaval of my recent household move, I got quite engaged in a piece that has since been overtaken by events, as they say: Ariel Levy's anticipatory profile, in the May 7 New Yorker, of teenage boxer Claressa Shields. The determined young woman from Flint, Mich., did take a gold in women's boxing at the London Olympics.

The piece was evidence of how good writing can draw you in, even on a subject in which you (at first) have no interest. But it also introduced me to a new form of a familiar idiom.

The word is finna.

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Ms. Levy writes, "She showed me her diary one day while she was eating lunch in her high school cafeteria." Levy quoted a key passage: "It just hit me. The reason that I box is to prove dudes, men wrong. They say women can't box? ... I'm finna" – fixing to – "start training so hard there's no male can even see a mistake in me."

Any number of readers would have skimmed over "finna" or been stumped by it, so I'm glad Levy (or her editors) tucked in that little explanatory gloss between dashes.

But even those who wouldn't use the idiom themselves will recognize "I'm fixing to go to the store," as a way to say, "I intend to, and am about to, go to the store."

What particularly struck me about "finna," though, was that it suggests that "fixing to" (or "fixin' to") is evolving to signal intent the way "going to" has evolved into "gonna" to signal the future.

Linguists call this process "grammaticalization." Think about it: When "going to" is part of an active verb in its concrete sense of motion in a given direction, it may come out of someone's mouth as "goin' to," but not "gonna." That is, "I'm going to the store," and not "I'm gonna the store." On the other hand, people do say, "We're gonna go to the movies tonight." The "gonna" signals future tense, and the "go" signals the action of going.

I know that seeing gonna in print sets many people's teeth on edge, including mine. But it's worth looking at to see how language evolves.

"Finna" isn't exactly all over the Web just now. I found a piece by a record producer explaining how he and a friend managed to interest Young Jeezy, a hot ticket in the world of rap and hip-hop, in supporting a song by a younger artist, Drake: "[The friend] ended up playing the record to Young Jeezy and they called me on iChat. Jeezy was excited and talked about how he was finna go in on it."

Urbandictionary.com, the online slang website, knows about "fixing to" and its variations, although I'm not sure they've got it quite right. "Fixing to" extends far beyond Texas, for example.

The Online Etymology Dictionary explains the verb "fix" as stemming ultimately from the Latin fixus, meaning "fixed, fast, immovable, established, settled." The original meaning, in the late 14th century, was "to set (one's eyes or mind) on something."

So before fix meant "repair" (a car) or "tamper with" (a jury), it had to do with setting intention and purpose. The King James Bible contains multiple instances of the phrase "to set one's face" to do something. It appears that the translators might have just as easily written, for instance, in II Kings 12:17, that "Hazael king of Syria ... was fixing to go up to Jerusalem."

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