1. A female fox.
a. A woman regarded as sexually alluring.
b. A woman regarded as quarrelsome or ill-tempered.
[From dialectal alteration of Middle English fixen, from Old English fyxe.]
Word History: In the traditional dialects 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 1800s 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.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices
Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:
The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.