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An etymological cul-de-sac: the verbs “flaunt” and “flout”

If anyone is interested, this post is number 900. I very much hope to reach Post 1001 and (perhaps) stop. The blog “The Oxford Etymologist” was born on 1 March 2006, and surprisingly, after 17 years of existence, it has not solved all the problems of word origins. It has even increased the confusion by explaining why the origin of such and such a word is and will probably remain unknown for all eternity. I am celebrating the blog’s dubious “anniversary” by rubbing in my discomforting message. 

Here is the verb flaunt “to display ostentatiously,” that is, “to show off.” It surfaced in English in the middle of the sixteenth century. Shakespeare once used the noun flaunts “finery,” but the verb seems to have been known very little, because even our seventeenth-century etymologists did not mention it. Flout, an evil shadow of flaunt, which means “to treat with contemptuous disregard,” appeared at approximately the same time. We flaunt what we possess and admire (wealth, status, and so forth) and flout what we in our arrogance choose to ignore (the ban, a rule, a law). Both verbs sound somewhat alike and suggest ostentation and challenge, and that is why they are sometimes confused.

Flout has been explained rather well. By contrast, flaunt is a verb “of unknown origin.” The main problem is that so many fl– verbs and adjectives are either sound-symbolic or sound-imitative. I discussed the verb flatter in my Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology and in Word Origins… and am thus on familiar ground, but each word has a history of its own, and reference to some general principle does not go far enough. We can wander from flews “the chaps of a hound” to floosy and face countless riddles.

What does Wulfila have to do with William? Only genius and the letter W.
(L: “Wulfila translating the Bible” by Willhelm Lindenschmit, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain. R: John Taylor portrait of William Shakespeare, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.)

The history of etymological research may be amusing. Noah Webster wrote about flaunt: “Doubtless of Celtic origin.” He cited flounce “to jerk forward” and Scottish flaster, which means approximately the same as flounce. Let me repeat: beware of getting lost in the fl– thicket, among fluster, flurry, flutter, flounder, and their likes (see also the end of this post). And of course, doubtless is a prohibited word in etymology. Until 1890, the revisions of Webster’s dictionary cited Gothic flautan “to boast” as either the source or a cognate of flaunt. (One never knows what to do with the forms one is advised “to compare” with the word that interests us.) This is an amazing tour deforce. The Gothic Bible was written in the fourth century, while the English verb turned up more than a millennium later. What happened to it between the days of Bishop Wulfila in Moesia and of William Shakespeare in Elizabeth I’s Albion? Did it remain undiscovered all that time? Also, flautan lacks n in the middle (this is not a fatal obstacle, however). And to add insult to injury, flautan is said to be of unknown origin. The Gothic adjective flauts meant “vainglorious.” We are witnessing an early case of flaunt and flout being confused. As far as I can judge, Gothic flauts and flautan are as sound-symbolic as the English verbs that interest us. In addition to suggesting the idea of flying, flowing, fluttering, and so forth, fl-, it appears, could also refer to ostentation, things flaming, flowery, and flamboyant.

Walter W. Skeat cited a few Swedish and Danish fl-words and called flaunt a possible borrowing from Scandinavian. This is an unconvincing hypothesis. Whenever a borrowing is suggested, we should explain under what circumstances a word penetrated another language. To put it differently, we need to pinpoint the place and circumstances of the contact. Who were the Danes, so influential and admired, that the English imitated their speech in the seventeenth century? Or is it a remnant of the Viking raids that lay dormant in some northern dialects and finally made its way to London? This is not impossible, but the evidence is wanting. Hensleigh Wedgwood, the most prominent etymologist of the pre-Skeat era, mentioned Bavarian flandern, a variant of fladdern ~ flattern, and reconstructed the verb’s initial meaning as “to wave to and fro.” His examples return us to English flatter ~ flutter ~ flitter and confirm the idea that we are dealing with a group of words resembling one another but most probably, not connected genetically. All the recent dictionaries say: “Of unknown origin” (a sad turnaround, considering Webster’s doubtless). The verdict is probably too harsh. We understand the impulse that produced sound-symbolic verbs like flaunt, but the details of the process are beyond reconstruction. (“Origin unknown” suggests that more research may or will answer all questions, but will it? Hardly in this case.)

This flutist is not trying to mock anyone.
(“Le flûtiste” by Antoine Plamondon, via getarchive.net, public domain)

Our conclusion about the etymology of flaunt is partly borne out by the history of flout, defined as “mock” by John Minsheu, the author of our first etymological dictionary of English (1617). From early on, in the entry flout, dictionaries have also been citing similar verbs, including the by now familiar Gothic flautan and the little-remembered verb flite “to jeer; wrangle,” but never specified the role of the lookalikes. However, as already mentioned, listing several fl-verb side by side throws no light on their origin. Wedgwood almost discovered the crucial clue, but it was Skeat who was the first to see the light. He tentatively explained flout as a borrowing from French and compared the English verb with Dutch fluiten (or rather, Middle Dutch fluyten) “to play the flute,” which once had also the meaning “to mock, jeer.” Perhaps there is no need to look for a French intermediary. In the early modern period, English borrowed hundreds of words from Dutch. The verb flout must have been slang, known outside the Low Countries. To cite a semantic parallel, German pfeifen auf (Pfeife “pipe”) has a similar meaning, that is, “to jeer.”

I’ll skip the history of flute but by way of conclusion, cite a few more fl -words, to show how treacherous this terrain is. My source is The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Flirt: probably an imitative formation: cf. flick, flip and squirt, spurt. Flap: probably imitative, like clap, slap, rap, tap. Flounce “dash or plunge with violent or jerky motion”: of obscure origin, like bounce, pounce, trounce. Flounder: “plunge or tumble about clumsily”: probably blending of founder “stumble, etc.” and blunder. (This idea must have suggested to an unreliable modern etymologist the derivation of flaunt as a blend of flout and vaunt!). Fluster: of unknown origin, but resembling in sense Icelandic flaustr “hurry” and flaustra “to bustle.” Flurry: probably after hurry.” Fluff: probably of dialectal origin, an alteration of flue “down” (obsolete), the f being symbolic of puffing away some light substance (!). Flummox: an imitative or symbolic formation. Flurry: probably after hurry. Flush “to fly up suddenly”: of imitative origin. Fluster: of unknown origin, but resembling in sense Icelandic flaust “hurry” and flaustra “to bustle.”

Don’t feel flummoxed: we lie in a mad, mad, mad world, in a kingdom of obscure symbols and distorting mirrors.

Featured image via Pxfuel (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. Gary Crouse

    “ I am not going to have lawyers
    flaunt the authority of this Court” – Judge Hoffman in the Chicago Seven trial.

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