Low-Key Thoughts on ‘Highfalutin’
By Anatoly Liberman
Allegedly a nineteenth-century Americanism, highfalutin is now known everywhere in the English speaking world, but, as could be expected, its etymology has not been discovered—“as could be expected,” because the origin of such words is almost impossible to trace. Many years ago, while investigating the history of skedaddle, I think I found a reasonable source of this verb. I was neither the first nor the second to discover it, but I put some polish (“kibosh,” as sculptors said 150 years ago) on it. My thoughts on highfalutin are low-key for an obvious reason. As will be seen, I have only one feeble idea and am offering it in the hope that, despite the lack of a persuasive solution, it may redirect the search for the source of this enigmatic adjective. But before sharing my small treasure with the world, I would like to quote the explanation given in John Hotten’s Slang Dictionary (the spelling and punctuation of the original have been retained): “Highfaluten, showy, affected, tinselled, affecting certain pompous or fashionable airs, stuck-up—‘Come, none of your highfaluten games:’ American Slang, now common in Liverpool and the East End of London, from the Dutch Verlooten. Used recently by The Times in the sense of fustian, highsounding unmeaning eloquence, bombast.” (Note how often the names of cloths end up meaning ‘pompous speech’: here fustian and bombast, both reflecting the idea of padding.) Hotten’s dictionary appeared in 1859, but I was quoting from the third edition (1864).
We notice three things in Hotten’s entry: the spelling (highfaluten), the use of the word in Liverpool and London, and the proposed etymology. The etymology is fanciful. Dutch verlooten (now spelled verloten) is a verb (the infinitive) meaning “to dispose of a thing by lottery, raffle.” There is also Dutch loot “shoot; offspring.” No connection can be established between either of them and highfalutin. The ghost of a Dutch etymon was raised once again in 1902, when a contributor to Notes and Queries traced -faluting to verluchting “an airing” (luchtig “airy, thin, light; unsubstantial, etc.”)—thus, “flighty talk,” another dead-end proposal. Unfortunately, Hotten’s derivation has been repeated in several popular books in which verloten was upgraded to an adjective meaning “high-flown, stilted.” But two other features of Hotten’s comment have hardly been discussed at all. I cannot imagine that by the middle of the 19th century an Americanism mainly used at home in reference to the inanity and shallowness of official orations (this is the impression the earliest quotations make) reached Liverpool and even the East End of London. The parents of those whom Jack London met and described in his 1902 book The People of the Abyss (it is about the slums of the East End) would hardly have known and appropriated this piece of American political slang. I also doubt that The Times would have used it then; in the middle and even at the end of the 19th century it was customary in England to pity the coarseness of “our American cousins” and resent Americanisms. So I risk suggesting that the word is British, even though the first recorded examples are from the United States. Finally, we see that Hotten did not hyphenate the word and spelled it highfaluten, not highfalutin, let alone high-faluting or high-falutin’. He probably did not think that the second element of the compound was a participle.
The other conjectures on the derivation of highfalutin have been rather uniform: most people thought that they were dealing with a combination of high- with a verbal form. Among the putative etymons we find -flown (possibly influenced by -floating); -flying, pronounced with an intrusive vowel, that is, -falying; -fluting, on account of the high pitch characteristic of orators and all kinds of tub thumpers or “pitching one’s pretensions, or boasting, or patriotic utterances in a high key” (compare the cautious suggestion given in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Perhaps a whimsical pronunciation of fluting, or a grandiose equivalent of flying or flown); and -flighting.” Mencken wrote: “There can be little doubt of its [the word’s] derivations from high-flighting.” As I never tire of repeating, beware of etymologists who preface their conclusions with no / little doubt, undoubtedly, and certainly. Only in the rarest cases can there be “little doubt” about the distant origin of a word. This is especially true of slang, the most volatile part of our vocabulary. In 1987 Thomas E. Murray summarized most of the existing guesses in the periodical Comments on Etymology and pointed to the word high-saluting. Early in the 19th century it had some currency in the American army. Soldiers eager to please their superiors saluted officers with excessive zeal, but the rank and file looked upon this practice with disapproval. Murray had no information about how well-known the word was but thought that there might have been some interaction between highfalutin and high-saluting. The tie seems to be rather tenuous.
In the post of September 9, 2009, I ventured the hypothesis that the Lancashire word fefnicute “a sneaking person; hypocrite” had been derived from Yiddish fonfer, some of whose senses are “double-talker” and “a specialist in hot air, baloney.” Historically, Liverpool was the home of a sizable Jewish community, so that my guess has some justification. I asked those who could be reading this blog in Lancashire to tell us whether the word was still current (Joseph Wright, the editor of The English Dialect Dictionary, constantly sent such questions to the readers of Notes and Queries), but no one responded, so I will pick up where I left off more than a year ago. Albert Barrère and Charles G. Leland, the authors of another widely used dictionary of slang, cited Yiddish hifelufelem “extravagant language; nonsense,” pronounced in rapid speech as hifelufem or hifelufen. They called the resemblance of sound and meaning remarkable. Now comes the feeble idea promised above. Despite the extreme caution that should be recommended in suggesting the Yiddish or Hebrew origin of any English word, I suspect that highfalutin is a folk etymological alternation of some form like hifelufen. If this is the source of the English adjective, it could rather naturally have changed into something beginning with high-. I will repeat briefly why I believe that all the other etymologies carry no conviction. First, the adjective does not seem to have originated in a word ending in -ing. Second, high-flighting and high-fluting do not exist (so there was noting to alter), while the difference in sound between high-flowing and highfaluting is too great. As far as we can judge, highfalutin has always been a rootless coinage. Third, the existence of highfaluten in the East End of London and especially in Liverpool can hardly be ascribed to the influence of American usage. Many so-called Americanisms have been imported from England, where they existed in a few local dialects, whereas in the New World they became part of all-American slang (and not only slang). Skedaddle is one such word. Perhaps highfalutin is another. It should be added that American highfalutin has no regional coloring, while in England it can perhaps be traced to the North. Liverpool is a likelier pace of origin, because it is easier to imagine the spread of highfalutin from the Jewish quarters of Liverpool to London slums than in the opposite direction. Had it come into existence in the East End, it would probably have been known between the capital and the North. But Hotten did not mention any intermediate areas. Perhaps some of our correspondents strong on antedating will be able to bolster or refute my suggestions. In either case I’ll be the first to rejoice.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”