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Highfalutin, cowan, and all, all, all… Gleanings at last!


The OUPblog editor, who has been taking care of this blog for over three years, is leaving the Press, and I wanted to give her a parting present. By chance, an opportunity has offered itself. Mr George Miller of Philadelphia read my old blog post of 8 December 2010 (it is titled “Low-key Thoughts on highfalutin’”) and sent us a letter with a new explanation of the funny adjective. The etymology of highfalutin one can find online is close to his, but he provided a context for the word, and so far, no one has done it: everybody, including me, only played with the form of –falutin(g). If the new explanation, which looks realistic, happens to be accepted, it will be a small step forward in the study of word origins, and what better present can an editor of an etymological blog hope for? A keepsake and the conviction that our work is not bricolage (pottering about with all kinds of bric-a-brac: see the image in the heading!) but an analog of a tree bearing fruit.

Below is Mr Miller’s comment and a letter to me that followed this comment.

I came across an article of yours speculating on the etymology of the Americanism “Highfalutin”. I would like to offer a possible etymology that I’ve heard:

As you probably know, the Mississippi was famed for its steamboats. These were large cargo and passenger paddle wheels that generally had 2 smokestacks above their wooden structures.

Coal sparks and embers were of course a fire threat, so various screens and deflectors evolved that returned the ash to the furnace while letting smoke pass. These soon developed quite ornate extensions since they served as advertisements for the elegance of the steamboat itself in a very competitive business. These were “high fluted” smokestacks, like the ones in the smokestack below. In the dialects and accents along the Mississippi (eg., Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi) I could easily see this being pronounced “Highfalutin”: a high-fluted steamboat is an ostentatious, pretentious steamboat.

I had also read that although it is most likely related to the Mississippi steamboat smokestacks, it may have another explanation: rather than being that those smokestacks were “high fluted”, they were also known as “high flued” since they were quite literally very tall flues.

I had also read that the primary alternative to shipping cargo and passengers on the Mississippi was by river barge. Needless to say, the only advantage of this for a passenger was that it was much cheaper. I suppose they had to sleep on deck, looking up at the richer “high fluted” (or “high flued”) passengers above them, with great resentment of those “high fluted” dandies laughing and looking down on them as they passed by in relative luxury.

The steamboats probably were the first manifestation of industrialization in the interior of the United States and so their smokestacks must’ve seemed quite huge, unique and startling in the mid 1830’s. I would imagine that describing a higher class of people by the smokestacks associated with the steamboats they traveled on would be a natural association for ordinary working people in the towns and cities of that time and place.


My post on the word cowan (4 October 2023) inspired a few “notes and queries.” Before commenting on them, I would like to reproduce part of the entry from the fifth edition of Lexicon on Freemasonry by Albert G. Mackey (Philadelphia: Moss), 1860, p. 99 (I referred to it in the original post but have only recently obtained a copy of the book):

COWAN. One of the profane. This purely masonic term is derived from the Greek kuon, a dog. In the early ages of the church, when the mysteries of religion were communicated only to initiates under the veil of secrecy, the infidels and unbaptized profane were called ‘dogs’… hence… kuon…, the term was borrowed by the Freemasons, and in time corrupted into cowan. The attempt made by some anti-masonic writers to derive the word from the chouans of the French Revolution is absurd.

Mackey quotes from a 1769 text, in which the word cowan occurs: “let cowans do as they please,” but cites no facts in support of his etymology.

Connection between cowan and Gobban the builder (mentioned in a letter to this blog) would also be hard to demonstrate, since cowan refers to an outsider, and the path from the Irish master builder to the term we know does not look straight. Rather (as pointed out in one of the comments), the development might be from “outsider” to a term of abuse. However, the semi-mythic builder was the very opposite of an outsider. In this matter, I would prefer to stay away from Gobban and St. Govan, along with his folklore offspring, and the brave Sir Gawain.

One of our correspondents (she signed her name as Mrs. Cowan) stated that the Cowans were the original wall builders in England but that their knowledge was stolen and put into practice by stone masons. She traces cowan to the “the bloodline, the Cowans.” Cowan is a Celtic name, and this is all I know about the subject. Therefore, I am not in a position to comment on Mrs. Cowan’s statement. I only expect that she can refer to some documents or oral tradition, supporting her claim. When and under what circumstances did the alleged theft occur? Perhaps we’ll hear more on the subject from those versed in the history of freemasonry and of the Cowan family.

“Hard work is better relish than Worcester Sauce.”
By Mark Norman Francis via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED)

For dessert

In addition to a huge database and hundreds of folders, I have a sizable archive (a heap of “forgotten lore”): articles about language historians and dictionaries, bits of curious correspondence from old periodicals, and multifarious indexes. This stuff will probably be recycled once I am gone, but so far, I am around and would like to reproduce a report of an amusing incident from The Academy 56, 1899, p. 467. The journal announced a literary competition for “a racy original proverb” (and there was a prize for the best proverb: a guinea). Since for a long time I was busy working on an etymological dictionary of English idioms (the book Take My Word for It is now out), I left this page in my folders. The guinea was divided between two people, but I don’t find the chosen proverbs too inspiring or “racy.” Here they are: “’Just in time’ is the brother ‘Just too late’” and “Hard work is better relish than Worcester Sauce.” Naturally, the Internet is full of images of that sauce (will someone be kind enough to comment on its virtues?).

“Fall in love with whom you please, but be very careful whom you marry.”
L: Grendel, by Joseph Ratcliffe Skelton, Wikimedia Commons (public domain). R: Magic Circle, by John William Waterhouse, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

I liked more some of the other sayings quoted on the page, for example: “The old umbrella seldom gets lost,” “Men should be judged only by their temptations,” “He who carries a guinea in each pocket walks between two friends,” “It is no consolation to get chewed up by a first-class dog,” and especially these two: “No amount of frugality can suffice to a man that has no income” and “Fall in love with whom you please, but be very careful whom you marry.”

Happy Thanksgiving to our American readers and greetings to the rest of the world! For all kinds of organizational reasons, the next blog post will appear in two weeks.

Featured image by Kevin Utting via Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Recent Comments


    Your Grendel illustration brought back memories of my childhood in the 1940s, when I had a small book about Beowulf that had it as a frontispiece. I had not seen it since.

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