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verb (used with object)
  1. to prevent the success of; frustrate; balk: Loyal troops foiled his attempt to overthrow the government.
  2. to keep (a person) from succeeding in an enterprise, plan, etc.
  1. Archaic. a defeat; check; repulse.

Origin of foil1

1250–1300; Middle English foilen, < Anglo-French foller, Old French fuler to trample, full (cloth). See full2
Related formsfoil·a·ble, adjectiveun·foil·a·ble, adjective


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1. thwart; impede, hamper.


  1. metal in the form of very thin sheets: aluminum foil.
  2. the metallic backing applied to glass to form a mirror.
  3. a thin layer of metal placed under a gem in a closed setting to improve its color or brilliancy.
  4. a person or thing that makes another seem better by contrast: The straight man was an able foil to the comic.
  5. Architecture. an arc or a rounded space between cusps, as in the tracery of a window or other ornamentation.
  6. an airfoil or hydrofoil.
verb (used with object)
  1. to cover or back with foil.
  2. to set off by contrast.

Origin of foil2

1350–1400; Middle English foille, foil < Old French fuelle, fueille, foille (< Latin folia leaves), fuel, fueil, foil (< Latin folium leaf, blade)


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4. contrast, complement, counterpart.


noun Fencing.
  1. a flexible four-sided rapier having a blunt point.
  2. foils, the art or practice of fencing with this weapon, points being made by touching the trunk of the opponent's body with the tip of the weapon.

Origin of foil3

First recorded in 1585–95; origin uncertain
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

Examples from the Web for foil

Contemporary Examples

Historical Examples

  • As a foil to his austerity, therefore, she would be audaciously gay in his presence.

    The Spenders

    Harry Leon Wilson

  • I ask, why is Tommy to be always the foil of Mr. Barlow to this extent?

  • He then, replacing the button, laid the foil down, and resumed his seat and his discourse.

    David Elginbrod

    George MacDonald

  • Our hero was alive to the emergency, and resolved to foil him.

    The Young Miner

    Horatio Alger, Jr.

  • As one fences in the dark, instinctively, so she kept him a foil's length away.

    The Lure of the Mask

    Harold MacGrath

British Dictionary definitions for foil


verb (tr)
  1. to baffle or frustrate (a person, attempt, etc)
  2. hunting (of hounds, hunters, etc) to obliterate the scent left by a hunted animal or (of a hunted animal) to run back over its own trail
  3. archaic to repulse or defeat (an attack or assailant)
  1. hunting any scent that obscures the trail left by a hunted animal
  2. archaic a setback or defeat
Derived Formsfoilable, adjective

Word Origin

C13 foilen to trample, from Old French fouler, from Old French fuler tread down, full ²


  1. metal in the form of very thin sheetsgold foil; tin foil
  2. the thin metallic sheet forming the backing of a mirror
  3. a thin leaf of shiny metal set under a gemstone to add brightness or colour
  4. a person or thing that gives contrast to another
  5. architect a small arc between cusps, esp as used in Gothic window tracery
  6. short for aerofoil, hydrofoil
verb (tr)
  1. to back or cover with foil
  2. Also: foliate architect to ornament (windows) with foils

Word Origin

C14: from Old French foille, from Latin folia leaves, plural of folium


  1. a light slender flexible sword tipped by a button and usually having a bell-shaped guard

Word Origin

C16: of unknown origin
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for foil


c.1300, foilen "to spoil a trace or scent by running over it," irregularly from Old French fouler "trample," from Vulgar Latin *fullare "to clean cloth" (by treading on it), from Latin fullo "one who cleans cloth, fuller," of unknown origin.

Hence, "to overthrow, defeat" (1540s). Sense of "frustrate the efforts of" first recorded 1560s. Related: Foiled; foiling. Foiled again! as a cry of defeat and dismay is from at least 1847.


"thin sheet of metal," early 14c., from Old French fueille "leaf," from Latin folia "leaves," plural (mistaken for fem. singular) of folium "leaf" (see folio).

The sense of "one who enhances another by contrast" (1580s) is from the practice of backing a gem with metal foil to make it shine more brilliantly. The meaning "light sword used in fencing" (1590s) could be from this sense, or from foil (v.). The modern sense of "metallic food wrap" is from 1946.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper