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Flatterers and bletherskites

Almost exactly twelve years ago, on August 2, 2006 (see this post), when the world and this blog were much younger, I mentioned some problems pertaining to the etymology of the verb flatter. Since that time, I have written several posts on kl– and sl-words and discussed sound symbolism more than once. There is little doubt that some sounds evoke steady associations in our mind. Such associations are akin to but not identical with those covered by the name of sound imitation (or onomatopoeia), and they are, in a way, mysterious, for why should kl-, for example, make us think of cloying, cleaving, and cluttering, while sl- conjures up an image of things slick, slimy, and sleazy? After all, clever refers to a laudable quality, and there is nothing reprehensible in slumbering or making haste slowly.

Whatever the cause, fl-words often suggest the idea of flickering ~ flittering ~ fluttering (and flowing, but flowing is not among our immediate concerns). The origin of Engl. flatter has bothered etymologists for centuries. The main difficulty consists in the embarrassment of riches strewn before them. Wherever one looks, some verb beginning with fl– offers itself as a sought-after etymon. The idea of borrowing looks especially tempting because flatter appeared in English only in the fourteenth century and ousted its older synonyms. Latin flare “to blow,” flatare “to make big,” and flagitare “to demand, importune,” with French flatter “to flatter,” as well as Icelandic flaðra “to fawn on one” (ð = Engl. th in this) and fletja “to roll (dough),” offer themselves as possible sources of the English word.

It is hard to prove anything in etymology, but two arguments speak decisively again borrowing Engl. flatter from French. First, French flatter would have lost –er in Middle English and become flat (this circumstance was already clear to the OED’s great editor James A. H. Murray).

Two historic events happened on August 2: in 1790, the first census began in the United States, and in 2002, the word flatter was mentioned in this blog for the first time. Get ready for the next census. From the “History of the United States from the earliest discovery of America to the present time,” public domain via Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr.

The second argument is a bit more complicated. As is well-known, German names like Sigmund and Siegfried are pronounced with initial z, that is (from the perspective of English), they are Zigmund and Ziegfried. The same holds for any Modern German word beginning with the orthographic s before a vowel: so “so,” sehen “to see,” Sommer “summer,” and the rest. To use technical terms, prevocalic initial s was voiced in German. Dutch went even farther and voiced both s and f before vowels.

In Middle English, this rule affected only a few dialects, including Kent. Several “Kentisms” (mainly because of Chaucer’s predilection for them) are still with us: for instance, the historical female of fox is vixen (German Füchsin), and a large tub is called vat (German Faß “vessel”). When Edgar as Poor Tom in King Lear (IV, 6) impersonates a rustic, he says zwaggered “swaggered,” zur “sir,” vurther “further,” and volk “folk.” In the Middle English poem Ayenbite of Inwit [“Pricks of Conscience”], Kent, the words ulateri “flattery” and ulatour “flatterer” occur (u = v), but in that text initial French f remained unaffected! Consequently, to that poet ulateri and ulatour were native. In the process of sound change, speakers often distinguish between native and borrowed sounds and treat them differently.

There is another hitch. The origin of the French verb is unknown, and, as I repeat at every opportunity, nothing is less profitable than deriving an etymologically opaque word from another equally opaque one.

Edgar as Poor Tom. “Edgar (Twelve Characters from Shakespeare)” public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The result invariably turns out to be wrong. Discussion of the origin of the French verb would take us too far afield. Several hypotheses have been advanced, none of which is fully convincing. For the same reason, Icelandic flaðra as the etymon of Engl. flatter fades out of the picture: very little is known about its history and even less about its origin (and of course the consonants don’t match: ð versus t).

The Kentish author voiced initial f. We are appreciative of his speech habits. Ayenbite of Inwit, Oxford University Press first edition.

Thus, English flatter is almost certainly native. Can it go back to Engl. flat? This idea still has some appeal to a few modern researchers, despite the fact that the development from “make flat” to “fawn on” is highly improbable. Although the sense “flatter” is always derivative of some coarser and ruder ones, especially prominent among them are “inflate,” “dupe,” and “lick.” German flattern, a near-homonym of flatter, means “to flutter.” Not improbably, it is a word of the same type as Engl. flatter. According to an extremely old suggestion, a flatterer flaps his wings as a dog wags its tail (hence the sense “flatter”). The suggested origin is thus from “flit about,” to “dance attendance” and (metaphorically) “ingratiate oneself by saying pleasant things.” This rather imperfect etymology of flatter seems to be the best there is at the moment.

Additionally, as though to mock us, another verb (this time certainly from French) synonymous with flatter is blandish, and this fact raises the question whether flatter does not perhaps trace to some word beginning with bl-. In Old Icelandic, the meanings of flaðra and blaðra overlapped. Latin blaterare “to blather” was suggested as the etymon of Engl. flatter centuries ago. Engl. blather ~ blether is from Scandinavian. Blither (which most of us seem to know only from the phrase blithering idiot) is a variant of blether, for in such words vowels and consonants vary freely, and competing dialectal forms substitute easily for one another. (Is Engl. blah, blah, blah from the first syllable of blather?)

Icelandic has the pair flaðra ~ blaðra, and in English, the pair flatter ~ blatter corresponds to it (blatter “to babble”). Could blatter influence the meaning of flatter? We will never know, but, even if it did, this fact will throw no light on the origin of flatter. Also, flatterers are glib and calculating, rather than idle talkers. The noun bladder and the verb blow (“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks”) are related, and either the sound symbolic or the sound-imitative value of bl– in them is more than probable. To conclude, from the etymological point of view, fl– in flatter does not go back to bl-.

Uriah Heep and his mother, two villains in David Copperfield and two preeminent flatterers in world literature. From David Copperfield, public domain via Flickr.

I can now say something about bletherskite (see the title of this post), with its variants blatherskite, blatherskate, bletheranskite, bletherkumskite, and at least two more. In 1903, an instructive exchange occurred about the word’s origin in Notes and Queries. Since that time, it has been discussed in various blogs, though without reference to NQ. Today, probably no one calls anyone a bletherskite. I even wonder how many younger people understand the word, which designates a blithering fool (not a flattering definition, but there isn’t anything we can do about it).

Although recognized as an Americanism, bletherskite is Scottish. This is a familiar situation: many Americanisms are regional British words brought to the New World, where they flourished, at least for some time; at home they may be known little or not at all (see what is said about the idiom let George do it in the post for last week).  The skate ~ skite component is tough. I am aware of at least six attempts to account for it. Some hypotheses are plausible, but in the sources I have consulted, they sound too definitive and produce the false impression that the answer is known. Some time in the future, I may return to this funny word. Today, our main object of enquiry has been the history of sycophants and lickspittles.

Feature image credit: Wings Nature Berries Bird Animal Fluttering, public domain via Max Pixel

Recent Comments

  1. Yves Rehbein

    Da bin ich aber platt, platt wie eine Briefmarke. I’m stomped, like stamp.

    “Platt” is obviously Platt-Deutsch for “flat”, perhaps distantly akin to “flach”. Compare “afflict”. Dacon wäre ich ganz angetan.

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