Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Flutes and flatterers

By Anatoly Liberman


The names of musical instruments constitute one of the most intriguing chapters in the science and pseudoscience of etymology. Many such names travel from land to land, and we are surprised when a word with romantic overtones reveals a prosaic origin. For example, lute is from Arabic (al’ud: the definite article followed by a word for “wood, timber”). The haunting lines by Duncan Campbell Scott (“I have done. Put by the lute”) don’t make us think of “the wood.” In everyday life it is usually preferable not to know the derivation of the words we use. Harp and fiddle fare no better than lute. Both are, in my opinion, Germanic. The verb harp as in harping on one note supplies a clue to the etymology of the noun harp (also think about harpoons) and phrases like fiddling with something or fiddle away shed light on how fiddle began its career. (Dictionaries assert that fiddle is a borrowing of Romance vitula, but vitula is, more likely, a borrowing from Germanic.) Harp and fiddle are unpretentious, homey words. They convey the idea of plucking the strings or moving the bow (just call it fiddlestick) over them.

A few curious things can be said about flute (which, of course, has nothing to do with lute). Unlike fiddle, this word is certainly of Romance descent. Vowels in it differed and still differ from language to language (see the display at the end of this post), but fl and t remain constant, and it is fl- that deserves our attention. In numerous Indo-European languages, especially in Germanic and Romance, initial fl-, bl-, and pl- have a sound symbolic or a sound imitative value and are connected with words for flying, flowing, floating, and blowing. Hence many puzzles. For example, fluent is a participle of Latin fluere “to flow.” At first sight, flow and fluere are congeners. Yet they cannot belong together, because the Latin consonant corresponding to Engl. f happens to be p, as in father ~ pater, not f, and, to be sure, we find Latin pluere “to rain,” a perfect cognate of flow as regards sound and sense. What then should we do with fluere in its relation to flow, a verb rhyming with pluere and belonging to the same semantic sphere? What is the origin of this confusion? No one has a definite answer. In any case, the often-repeated explanation that fluere should be kept apart from flow, which has modified its sense under the influence of the Latin verb, does not rest on any evidence. It is wishful thinking, for how can one demonstrate influence? The other explanation refers to the sound symbolism common to Latin and Germanic (the “fluiditiy” of fl-), but, although sound symbolism unquestionably exists, when it comes to concrete cases, adducing proof constitutes a problem.

One can imagine that wind instruments, including several varieties of the flute, are among the most ancient of all, since some kind of bulrush was widely available and shepherds always needed pipes. Blowing into a reed, the way King Midas’s barber did, and producing some primitive music would not have been too difficult. According to another Greek myth, Athena invented an aulós, usually translated as “oboe,” but threw it away because it distorted her face (or so she thought). Although indifferent to amorous pursuits, she was quite particular about her good looks. The satyr Marsyas picked up the instrument and learned to play it so well that he challenged Apollo to a contest in music. He lost, and the vengeful god, who did not brook competition, flayed him alive. Even if the aulós designated the oboe, the verb auléo is glossed in Greek dictionaries as “play the pipe or flute,” which is not surprising, for the root of the word signified a hollow tube (those who care to learn more about this root may look up alveolus ~ alveoli in English etymological dictionaries). Apparently, the idea behind the naming of those instruments was blowing: compare Engl. the winds. In other languages, the notion of blowing in the generic name of the winds comes to the foreground even more strongly. Whistling (as in Russian svirel’ “pipe”; stress on the last syllable) and chirping (as in pipe; Latin pipare “chirp”) are also close by. A phonetic variant of pipe is fife, related to Gaelic piob.

Pied Piper children, Kate Greenaway
An illustration of the Pied Piper by Kate Greenaway from The Pied Piper of Hamelin, by Robert Browning, public domain via Project Gutenberg and Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, there can be other associations. The poet Vladimir Mayakovski likened the flute, with its keys and blowholes, to the human spine, and the Romans called the flute tibia “shin.” But reference to blowing prevails, and where blowing appears, the group fl- is close by. Therefore, the stern conclusion of The Century Dictionary (at flute) should, I believe, be taken with a grain of salt: “Ultimate derivation unknown. The common derivation, through a supposed Medieval Latin *flatuare, from Latin flatus, a blowing, flare… is untenable” (an asterisk designates a form, reconstructed but not attested in written records; the great Romance philologist Friedrich C. Diez wanted *flatuare to become *flautare and thus yield the desired combination flaut-). Nor did Murray think much of the flatuare idea. “Ultimate origin unknown” is what most modern dictionaries prefer to say about flute, though Skeat remained at least partly noncommittal: “Of uncertain origin. The fl may have been suggested by Latin flare, to blow.” This is a familiar motif: we have already witnessed the attempt to solve the flow ~ fluere riddle in the same way.

Sound imitative words tend to resemble one another like people wearing the same uniform. Yet belonging to the same regiment does not amount to blood kinship. “The ultimate origin” of flute is indeed unknown, but the word may be onomatopoeic. It is a seldom-mentioned fact that English recognizes the flute as a hollow tube or channel. The connection can be discerned only in a past participle: a fluted column, for instance, is one decorated with flutings (carved vertical grooves).

Any instrument has the capacity of producing dulcet or harsh notes. There is the dialectal word Fladuse in Low (= northern) German. It means “flattery,” from the antiquated French phrase fleute douce “sweet flute,” supposedly, coined under the influence (!) of French flatter “to flatter.” But couldn’t the idea of sweet sounds suggest flattery directly, without any “influence”? The origin of flatter has been hotly contested. I support the hypothesis that the word was coined in Germanic and meant “flutter around the person whose favors one wishes to obtain,” with the French verb having been borrowed from Middle English. Flutter, flitter, and flatter begin with the group fl- that we find in flute. In English, contrary to German, flute left a jeering echo. Rather probably, flout has been taken over from Middle Dutch. In Modern Dutch, fluiten has the expected sense “whistle; play the flute,” but many centuries ago it also meant “mock, jibe”; German pfeifen carries similar connotations. It only remains for me to list the numerous forms in which the word flute has been recorded in the old and modern Romance languages: fleute, flaute, flauto, flahute, flavuto, frauto, flaguto…, but flageolet is seemingly not related to any of them.

Its origin is (alas!) unknown, but I find it hard to believe that the paths of flare, flute, and flageolet have not crossed more than once. “Blow, winds, crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” But we will not leave the shelter of the wall and from our secure corner play sweet tunes, flatter the ancient gods, and flout the elements.

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 on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology posts via email or RSS.
Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.

Read More in…

Recent Comments

  1. Annie Morgan

    A most enjoyably satisfiying article!

  2. John Cowan

    What about Tolkien’s suggestion that the formal equivalence between harp and Latin corb-is ‘wicker basket’ must mean something? The semantics, I grant, are difficult.

  3. Roland Schuhmann

    1. When in the sentence “In any case, the often-repeated explanation that fluere should be kept apart from flow … does not rest on any evidence” the etymologies are meant, this is not true. fluere, pluere and flow derive from 3 clearly distict roots in PIE: to flow < PIE *pléh3-ye/o- (LIV2 485), pluere < PIE *pléu-e/o- (LIV2 487), fluere < PIE *bhluH-é/ó- (LIV2 90).

    2. Is there a specific reason why you didn't mention the idea of Guiraud that the word flute ultimately stems from a verb OFr. *flahuter – a contamination of lat. flare 'to blow' and *huter 'to call' (the verb exists in Normandy till today)?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *