An idiom in language can be described as the way in which a particular phrase is used by a certain group of people or district, community, or class.
In idiomatic speech and writing, the words and expressions themselves sometimes take on a specific meaning, which is not always clear to second-language speakers. For example, what do you say when someone says, fancy meeting you here?
When someone says “fancy meeting you here” in a surprised tone they are indicating that they are pleased to see you in a certain place, while a sarcastic tone suggests that the speaker would rather not have bumped into you at this place or time. Your response will depend on whether you interpret the greeting to be one of surprise or sarcasm.
This article will examine some of the general characteristics of idiomatic English, using this expression, “fancy meeting you here,” as an example of a phrase having at least two meanings.
We’ll also discover how to tell whether the expression is being used in its positive, “I’m happy to see you” or negative “What are you doing here?” sense — and how to respond accordingly.
The Meaning of Fancy Meeting You Here
Is there any difference between meeting and seeing? The verbs “to meet” and “to see” have different meanings, of course.
“Meet” has a sense of coming together in a particular place and time, while “see” has a sense of “laying eyes upon” something or someone, possibly even at a distance.
However, in the context of our expression of “fancy meeting/seeing you here,” there is no real difference in meaning. The words “meeting” and “seeing” are completely interchangeable in this expression.
Now, let’s look at how this same expression can mean two different things.
The Positive Meaning of Fancy Meeting You Here
Again, whatever difference in meaning there might be lies in the intention and tone of the speaker. So, an amiable or friendly greeting would signal a genuine expression of surprise when you meet someone you know in an unexpected place.
A: Susan, fancy meeting you here! I thought you had moved overseas.
B: Good heavens, John. Fancy meeting you here, too! Someone told me you had returned home.
In this context, the speakers are saying that they never expected to see the person there but are nevertheless pleased that the meeting has taken place. We may expect that a pleasant reunion will follow this greeting.
The greeting may also be delivered in a friendly but ironic sense, meaning that the speaker is not surprised to see the person there because their presence is entirely expected, even habitual. For example:
Harry [sitting down on a barstool next to his best friend]: Hello George, fancy seeing you here!
Harry suggests, not too subtly, that seeing George sitting at the bar is a common occurrence and that George can probably be found in the same spot at this time every day.
The Negative Meaning of Fancy Meeting You Here
If someone uses a negative tone of voice to accompany this greeting, this tells us that the speaker is not happy to see the person at this time or in this place. Such a tone is an example of sarcasm — in this case, using words to mock or humiliate someone.
Seeing the person in this place, however, may not be unexpected. For example:
Oh, it’s you again, is it? Fancy meeting you here. I thought you wouldn’t want to show your face here again.
It may also be used to express annoyance that someone is late for an arranged meeting, as in:
Well, well. Fancy seeing you here. I thought you were never going to arrive.
How to Use “Fancy Meeting You Here”
Let’s see how we use this phrase and how to respond to it accordingly. We have already seen several examples of how and where such a phrase may be used. But how does one respond? Again, the appropriate response depends on the speaker’s intention.
If it’s a friendly and welcoming greeting, the natural response would be to reply in the same manner. Depending on who you’re talking to and your own feelings about protecting your privacy, this may involve some explanation of how and why you find yourself in this place at this time. For example:
A: Susan, fancy meeting you here.
B: Oh, hi, John. Yes, it’s been a while. How are you?
In this example, speaker A is expressing that they’re pleasantly surprised to see Susan. Speaker B responds by stating that it’s unusual for her to be there, but she’s being vague about why she’s there.
However, as the greeting was warm and friendly, she is now moving the conversation forward by asking them how they are doing.
Always remember that this greeting is a clear indication that the person saying it is pleased to see you. More than that, they are probably hoping to spend some quality time with you during the time that you are together.
The warm greeting is always a sign that the person likes you and is happy to see you again.
The negative and grumpy use of the phrase says the opposite. It says that you’ve got a bit of a nerve showing up at this place at this time, and you’re not welcome to stick around for too long.
Depending on previous interactions, it’s quite possible that you’d be well advised to quietly leave and not return. Clearly, you’re not going to feel at home here.
Synonyms for Fancy Meeting You Here
By now, it should be clear that the expression, used in the positive and welcoming sense, is the same as saying:
What a pleasant surprise to see you here!
How nice to see you here!
It’s been a while since we’ve seen you — how have you been?
Underlying this warm greeting, when said in the context of a possible romantic attraction, may also be the message:
I’m pleased to see you again, and your being here makes the occasion more interesting and enjoyable.
How can such simple language have such a variety of underlying meanings?
We need only look as far as the origin of the word “fancy” to see that it comes from the Middle English fantasie, meaning imagination or illusion, and from the Latin phantasia, meaning to imagine (source).
These days, “fancy” is commonly replaced by the expression, “Funny seeing you here.”
Hence, it’s only a small step to thinking and imagining that, following this chance meeting, we may grow to “fancy” each other.
The Many Meanings of “Fancy”
As we know, American and British English vary in several different ways. The most obvious difference is in the spelling of some words. Many of these spellings were popularized by Noah Webster, the founder of what is still the most reliable American English dictionary in the early nineteenth century.
Sometimes, the meaning of words also differs between American and British usage. Take the word “fancy.” The word may be used as a verb, a noun, and an adjective. Used as a verb in mainly British speech, its meaning is to want to have something or to do something.
Do you fancy going to the movies tonight?
This may be “translated” into American English as:
Do you want to go to a movie tonight?
In another sense of the same word, someone from London may say:
I fancy West Ham to win the Cup Final this year.
Of course, the speaker would be suggesting that he thinks West Ham’s chances of winning the Cup are good, although he might be sadly disillusioned.
As another example, you might “fancy” a team, and you can also “fancy” yourself. This takes on a different meaning, as in this example:
I fancy myself as an F-1 racing driver one day.
This means that you like the idea of being that kind of person or following that career one day. Similarly, you can also fancy yourself as a film star or a good mother, or whatever future prospects you may have for yourself.
Also, if you take a fancy to someone, it means that you feel romantically attracted to them. And if someone fancies themselves, it means that they think a lot of themselves in a boastful and arrogant sense.
The expression, “whatever tickles your fancy,” has become increasingly popular in the US since the 1970s — while declining in the UK — in the sense of “whatever makes you happy” (source).
The word “fancy” can also mean grand, posh, or high-class, as in “This is a very fancy building.” We even use the word as an exclamation of surprise: “Well, fancy that!”
So, what is the special meaning of the expression, “fancy meeting you here,” and is there any difference between that expression and “fancy seeing you here”?
What Does the Phrase “I Fancy You” Mean
Merriam-Webster actually cites this usage as the first of its meanings for the phrase. To “fancy” someone means to like them in a romantic way (source).
Now we can ask ourselves the question, should the phrase “I fancy you” be used in polite company? Is it polite to tell someone that you “fancy” them after a couple of dates?
The answer to these questions might depend on how serious the relationship is, or how seriously you would like your romantic intentions to be received. To “fancy” someone is typically interpreted as a passing or superficial liking or attraction.
As such, it is not likely that such a declaration will be taken too seriously or as a commitment of everlasting love.
Used in this sense, meaning to feel attracted to someone, is more common in British English than in America.
American English is more likely to use “fancy” as an adjective to describe something upmarket, posh, or smart, such as a fancy house, a fancy restaurant, or a fancy suit.
In the romantic sense, “I fancy you” is also far more likely to be used informally by the younger generation.
It is also more likely to be used to describe one’s feelings about someone, as in “I fancy him/her,” rather than as a declaration of affection to the person you’re attracted to themselves.
The English Idiom
Words and phrases may have a literal and a figurative meaning, expressing one thing in terms of another. Thus, the expression “Fancy meeting you here” has a figurative meaning that can be interpreted in at least two ways (source).
Most EFL (English as a Foreign Language) students learn to speak “correct” English, which means that it meets native-speaker norms.
This usually means learning and adopting sets of more-or-less preconstructed words and phrases with very specific meanings, which we call idioms.
When combined with other words, these idioms and expressions make up our day-to-day communication. “Fancy meeting you here” is an example of such an expression.
Make sure you read our article on “make do” compared to “make due” to explore this and other phrases, idioms, and expressions in the English language.
Same Expression, Two Opposite Meanings
Before we dig any deeper into where this expression comes from, let’s look at those two, seemingly opposite, meanings of the expression.
Like so many other aspects of a language, the meaning is as much — sometimes more — an expression of the speaker’s tone and attitude as it is an expression of the words themselves.
“Fancy meeting you here,” when said in an enthusiastic and friendly tone accompanied by a broad smile, and perhaps an extended hand or open arms, signals that the speaker is surprised and pleased to see you. For them, the meeting is an unexpected pleasure.
However, when said in a dry and grumpy tone, perhaps accompanied by a frown or a turning away, the speaker is clearly indicating that your presence is unwelcome.
It may also indicate that the speaker is not surprised to find you at that place, but resents your presence nevertheless.
We’ll look at some examples in a moment to illustrate these different circumstances.
The word “fancy,” like many other words in English, has taken on different meanings over the years. It has different connotations in American and British usage, and also in its literal and figurative applications.
In some senses, though, the word has not strayed too far from its original meaning of “to show or present to the mind,” in other words, to imagine.
If our first reaction to seeing someone is to exclaim: “Fancy meeting you here!” our mind is telling us that this is an event that we would not have imagined happening.
It’s a surprise, and, if said with a big smile on our face and with open arms, it could lead to a pleasant reunion of two people who might otherwise have missed each other.