Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you


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Twitter never fails to disappoint. Or should that be ‘never disappoints’?


While reading something online the other day I came across the phrase Twitter never fails to disappoint. The context made it clear that the meaning intended was ‘Twitter never disappoints’. This is the exact opposite of the logical reading that ‘Twitter always disappoints.’

That example reminded me of one from years ago. A tourist brochure for a seaside resort promised something along the lines of ‘A visit to X-on-Sea never fails to disappoint.

And then, slap my thigh, today, when I was checking out restaurants for my partner’s birthday, what did I come across but this glowing recommendation: I’ve been going to X Bistro in Y since it opened, which was not yesterday, and I can safely say that their food has never failed to disappoint?

(Which shows that the phrase is not a completely frozen idiom, because it allows past tense.)

What is going on that makes a structure mean the opposite of what the speaker intended? And how do other speakers manage to extract the correct meaning? The discussion on the English StackExchange site shows that the phrase can certainly cause confusion.

Multiple negations cause problems

It’s all to do with the number of negations, and how the human brain goes into meltdown when trying to process too many. Having two negations might be the limit to easy intelligibility.

Such negations can be explicit (not, no, nobody, never, etc.) or they can be implicit (fail, ignore, avoid, etc.). If we analyse our phrase in terms of negation, we’ll find three:
• to fail to do something is not to do it = negation1 (explicit)
never adds negation2 (explicit)
disappoint adds negation3 (implicit)
(Disappoint is implicitly negative since it means ‘not to live up to expectations’.)

Logically, to never fail to do something means ‘to always do’ it. ‘Twitter never fails to disappoint’ therefore means ‘Twitter always disappoints.’

But the example which caught my eye was intended to mean the exact opposite. It reads like a conflation of ‘never fails to please’ or some appropriate positive verb, and ‘never disappoints’.


Notice how the reply at the top uses the logical meaning to rebut the positive but mistaken one under the image of the woman eating.

Not a unique case

Twitter never fails to disappoint is hardly a unique case of a phrase meaning the opposite of what the speaker intends. Another well-known and well-embedded example is the ‘It is impossible/difficult/hard to underestimate’ structure, where, logically, overestimate is meant, e.g. ‘It would be impossible to underestimate its [sc. Ulysses’] influence; the novel was never quite the same again.’ The logical meaning is ‘its influence cannot be overestimated’ i.e. exaggerated.

But there we only have two negatives rather than three: one explicit – impossible – and one implicit negative in overestimate, because to overestimate is to produce an incorrect estimate.

But let’s get back to never fail to do.

never + fail + to what?

In theory, in the sense of always doing it, you could never fail to do practically anything, for example, I never fail to eat Marmite at breakfast.
However, our old friend collocation kicks in strongly here. The string never + FAIL [sloped capitals mean ‘in all forms’] + to-infinitive very often goes with events and emotions that can be classified broadly as either positive (entertain, amuse, please, delight, inspire, etc.) or intense (impress, amaze, surprise, etc.), or a mixture of the two.

Even an apparently neutral verb such as make goes with positive verbs, e.g. MAKE + me/us/people, etc. + laugh/smile/giggle/chuckle (though whether that is, in any case, a feature of make, rather than of the entire phrase, is impossible to tell).

‘You’ve got to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive…’

In fact, the top five collocations by frequency of never + FAIL + to-inf are (in my corpus, OEC Monitor Corpus April 2018) impress, amaze, make, deliver, disappoint.

If, as I have suggested above, the overall ‘profile’ of never fail to is positive, then speakers view never fail to disappoint as positive, despite its meaning the opposite. They take the whole as a ready-made, rather than analysing its meaning.
Moreover, it is possibly one of those phrases where the presence/absence of a negative makes little difference to the meaning. As Language Log pointed out, fail to miss behaves like that: the meaning is the same whether you say miss or fail to miss. Similarly, whether you say never DISAPPOINT or never FAIL to disappoint, the meaning is the same.

The corpus I consulted contains 226 examples of never FAIL to disappoint. In a random sample of 50, 45 showed the illogical meaning (= ‘never DISAPPOINT’)

We were rewarded with our choice of route as the New Zealand scenery never fails to disappoint. (= ‘never disappoints’)

If I’m going to drop $20 on a couple of made-to-order burgers, fries and a soda, there are a few Portillo’s close to here which are similarly priced but never fail to disappoint (= ‘never disappoint’) …The staff here is on point. Honestly, they can’t do enough for you.

A mere five (10%) exemplified the logical surface reading, meaning ‘always succeed in disappointing’.

For example, in this about the chronically inept Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS):

Lord Oakeshott, a leading LibDem peer, said: ‘RBS never fails to disappoint. Taxpayers poured £45 billion but it is a zombie bank, shrinking instead of lending.’

Similarly, this investigator of financial shenanigans:

My investigations often lead me into contact with British law enforcement and regulators and they never fail to disappoint me by their incompetence and lack of professionalism.

All in all, then, it would seem that the apparently negative ‘never FAIL to disappoint’ is well established as meaning the opposite of what it seems to mean, and as positive in intent.

We interpret it as positive, I submit, because a) we are now well used to a range of constructions that mean the opposite of what they are intended to mean and b) multiple negatives cannot be processed and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, lead to a positive or affirmative interpretation.

It could also be significant that the opposite – always FAIL to – does not collocate with the same verbs as never FAIL to. There is a solitary example of always FAIL to disappoint:

The beauty of Smashing Pumpkins is that every album is drastically different from each other. I’m eager for this release, Billy Corgan has always failed to disappoint me.


This general phenomenon of muddled negation is described by Language Log as ‘misnegation’ or ‘overnegation.’ Here is a link to a very long list of examples.

And here is an utterly mind-boggling example, courtesy of LL:

These contrasts don’t mean that Bush was without blemish: As Meacham notes, there were political misjudgments and calculated concessions to ambition on the long path to power. Nor does it mean that Trump doesn’t lack his own kind of strengths, not the least of which is his loudly declared indifference to elite opinion.

The fact is, we are able to interpret these car-crash negatives correctly and extract the meaning the speaker intended.

As humble proof of that, I stared at this oft-cited canonical example for ages before I realised what was wrong: ‘No head injury is too trivial to ignore.’ Like you, gentle reader, I understood what it meant without needing to analyse it, but it should, obviously – D’oh! – on reflection, be rephrased as ‘No matter how trivial your head injury seems, we will not ignore it’ or ‘No head injury is too trivial to be attended to.’ Again, it’s a case of that triple negation; no head injury1; is too trivial to X2 (= ‘is so trivial that it will not be Xed)’; be ignored3 (negative = ‘will not be attended to’).

Watch out for this kind of phrase. There are never too many of them not to fail to ignore.

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Read this! It’s of upmost importance! Utmost, upmost, uppermost and collocation

A three-minute-and-a-second-or-two read

Please read. This is of uppermost importance

The other day I was editing a chapter written by a French/Flemish academic who is a non-mother tongue speaker of English. Apart from a few lurking French-English false friends, it read extremely well, given its (predictably) dry academic style. Then I came across ‘Researching…NOUN bla, bla, bla, rather than simply focusing upon its rhetorical representations is, therefore, of uppermost importance’.

of upmost importance

Tiens! thought I. (Well, I didn’t; I’m just being more than usually pretentious. Reading lots of academic writing in the Humanities can make you like that, you know. Be warned!)

When English speakers diverge from the collocation ‘(of) utmost importance’ they usually replace utmost with upmost.  I hadn’t come across uppermost in that slot before.

But, I can easily see how, if none of the three words is part of your language, uppermost makes sense. It certainly seems to as regards meaning: ‘Highest in place, rank, or importance’ as the Online Oxford Dictionary defines it. And if you know the physical meaning (e.g. on the uppermost shelf), it is a mere hop, skip and jump to the metaphor.

It just so happens that uppermost does not generally associate or ‘collocate’ with importance.1

For example, in the Oxford Corpus of Academic English, Journals (June 2015, 1.67 billion words), a search for each of the three adjectives followed by importance retrieves this league table: utmost 1,765, upmost, 27, uppermost 4. Clearly, uppermost is a very distant ‘outrider’.2

The BYU Now Corpus (6 billion words) gives a similar result for the first two: utmost at 6,241 and upmost at 142, but uppermost is even rarer, with a single occurrence.

Could upmost be spreading?
I have long known about ‘upmost importance’; it’s something I must have noted long, long ago. Google Ngrams shows its steady rise since roughly 1930.

But I was a bit surprised to find that upmost limpets itself to other nouns as well.

Looking for example in the Oxford Monitor Corpus (February 2018, about 8 billion words), in addition to the well-ensconced upmost importance, I found upmost respect/integrity/professionalism/dignity:

I can only hope that today’s verdict goes some way to bringing closure to the victim’s family who have behaved with the upmost dignity throughout this very harrowing ordeal.

That is from the BBC News website, repeating, presumably, what someone said, so it might be a transcription glitch. Or it might not.

Those collocations do not appear in the Corpus of Academic English, Journals, which probably reflects the edited nature of the journals, compared to the content of the Monitor Corpus.

Is upmost wrong?
I’d say, rather, that it is, according to current collocational preferences, somewhat anomalous.

However, many people would consider it wrong tout court, that is, with no qualifications, and therefore an editor should probably change it, or, at the least raise the issue with the writer. I would.

Confusing upmost with utmost is hardly surprising given their sound and meaning similarity. It just so happens that the meaning, as the OED defines it, ‘That is of the greatest or highest degree; of the largest amount, number, etc.’ became, it seems, largely confined to utmost, rather than upmost or uppermost, from the early eighteenth century onwards.

However, the eggcorns database labels it as practically ‘mainstream’, while explaining its occurrence:  ‘[The constituent “ut”] is liable to reanalysis to something that more transparently expresses superlative meaning, such as up+most (‘uppermost’), which fits with the MORE IS UP-type metaphor. This may also involve anticipatory assimilation to the nasal in “most”.’

Conclusion
Collocation is such a tricky part of language; it is what invariably distinguishes the ‘native’ speaker from second-language speakers (like our professor at the start) no matter how proficient they might be.

It is also often unpredictable. Why do you make a mistake rather than do one?

For example, if you repay a debt, it seems kind of obvious and logical that the words ‘go together’, that repay is the right word to go with debt, given the meaning of each.

But if you honour a debt, or a cheque, that is, to my mind a rather different order of language combination (though, admittedly, one that is shared by French, Italian, and German, but not Spanish). And you cannot dishonour a cheque.

Moreover, like everything in language, collocational conventions change over time.

Which gives me a pretext for one of my favourite quotes, from that granddaddy of linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure:

Le temps change toute chose : il n’y aucune raison pour que la langue échappe à cette loi universelle.’

Time changes all things; there is no reason why language should escape this universal law.


1 What it does, of course, often collocate with is mind and related words (e.g. As Europe seeks to increase pressure on Moscow over its seizure of the Crimea region from Ukraine, making Moscow pay an economic price is uppermost in leaders’ minds).

In its original, literal, physical meaning, uppermost often goes with layers, reaches, tiers, floors, and the like: Ms. Langley’s ascent represents a slight evolution in how women have navigated moviedom’s uppermost ranks.

2 Outrider – not to be confused with the popular series Outlander – is a modish cliché I’ve discovered is popular in Academe. It means something like an exception, a solitary or unorthodox case.


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Getting off scot-free or scotch-free? Nothing to do with Scotland, anyway


(4-minute read)

Here’s a wheels-within-wheels eggcorn, or even an eggcorns-within- eggcorns eggcorn.

The standard form of the phrase is ‘to get off scot-free’:

Stone believes the two rig supervisors should be prosecuted, but he also thinks BP’s senior leaders have got away scot-free.

And here’s an example with the eggcorned version:

Every school child, and 99.999999999999% of the rest of us know the name of the ONLY country to commit nuclear genocide on innocent civilians and get away scotch-free.

Q: Is it scot free, scotfree or scot-free?
Dictionaries hyphenate it (Oxford Online, Collins, Cambridge, Merriam-Webster).

At the end of this post there are figures showing the relative frequency of this eggcorn. Meanwhile, let’s delve into scot-free’s backstory.

Q: Scot-free has got something to do with Scotland, Scots, Scottish, hasn’t it?
Nope, absolutely nothing, zilch, diddly squat, nada. It has nothing to do with the nationality, the language or the drink.

(Nor does it have anything to do with the American slave Dred Scott.)

Q: Oh, really!?! So, what is that scot bit, then?
It’s an archaic word for a form of tax. So being ‘scot-free’ meant not having to pay scot, that tax, and then, more generally, not having to pay anything for whatever it might be.

(More specifically, the OED defines scot as ‘A tax or tribute paid by a feudal tenant to his or her lord or ruler in proportion to ability to pay’.)

Q: OK. But what has that got to do with the modern meaning of ‘without punishment or harm’?
As so often happens, people have extended the literal meaning to something more metaphorical and less specific (known by language geeks like me as ‘semantic broadening’).

As just mentioned, scot was a tax, and scot-free also once meant not liable for tax, and then later, more generally, ‘not liable to pay anything’. In parallel, it came to mean ‘escaping punishment, harm, or injury’. Here’s the earliest example in the OED entry (3rd edn., June 2011) of that extended meaning.

Is there eny grett differynge Bitwene theft and tythe gaderynge..? Uery litell,..Savynge that theves are corrected, And tythe gaderers go scott fre.

1528   Rede me & be nott Wrothe sig. H1 (a tract by reformers condemning the abuses of the Catholic Church)
[Is there any great difference between theft and tithe gathering? Very little,..except that thieves are punished, and tithe gatherers go scot-free.]

And here’s a much later example with the financial meaning still very much alive and kicking.

It was therefore thought very unjust by the Legislature, that all others be oblig’d to pay, and those Towns go Scot-free.

1734,   London Daily Post, 27 Nov.

Q: Is scotch-free a recent eggcorn?
Well, from the eggcorn database, which records it from as recently as 2007, you might be forgiven for supposing so.

However, the Corpus of Historical American has an example from 1960; and while the earliest OED citation is the 1528 one shown above, the second citation has scotchfree, suggesting that the association with Scotland was made very early on. In other words, the eggcorn goes back at least to the mid-16th century. Perhaps it should be spelled eggkorne in honour.

Daniell scaped scotchfree by Gods prouidence.

1567, J. Maplet Greene Forest f. 93

(Note that scaped for escaped, as in scapegoat.)


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Q: Is it true that scot-free was once shot-free?
Correct. That’s how Shakespeare put it into Falstaff’s mouth in Henry IV, Pt. 1 v. iii. 30.

Q: Now I’m totally confuseddotcom. What’s the link between scot-free and shot-free, then?
Well, here’s the next wheel or twist. That scot itself is probably a variant of shot, with the same meaning, influenced by Scandinavian skot. However, that shot doesn’t appear in the OED’s records in its own right until 1475:

  On cast down her schott and went her wey. Gossip, quod Elenore, what dyd she paye? Not but a peny.

  c1475   Songs & Carols (Percy Soc.) 94

Here shot means ‘The charge, reckoning, amount due or to be paid, esp. at a tavern or for entertainment; a or one’s share in such payment. Now only colloq. to stand shot’ (according to the unrevised OED entry).

Scott used it with that meaning:

Are you to stand shot to all this good liquor?

1821, Scott, Kenilworth II. vii. 184

Q: Does anyone still use scot-free in its original meaning?
You mean, ‘not having to pay (tax)’? The OED marks it as ‘rare’, and presents as its most recent citation one from 1921:

The common laborer does not know that that act [on taxation] was passed. He is scot free at 40 cents an hour.

Internal-revenue Hearings before Comm. on Finance (U.S. Senate, 67th Congr., 1st Sess.) 384

But a 1992 citation from Ngrams seems also to refer to this meaning:

Everything will be scotch free, as they say, and McFillen assures me there will be a good fiddle in the expenses if I work my loaf.

Celebrated Letters, John B. Keane.

Q: But to qualify as an eggcorn, doesn’t there have to be a plausible explanation meaningwise of why people use the phrase in the eggcorned version?
That’s right. And the eggcorn database records an ingenious (post)-rationalization of the modern eggcorn, which I’ll quote in full here:

I was watching Big Brother 8 when a ditzy girl said she got off “scotch free.” Well if you think of the powers of the product Scotchguard that protects fabrics from staining thus allowing crap to easily flow off and not stick. Same idea as the current usage of the phrase getting off “scot free,” no?

That’s a similar image to the one that leads to Teflon man, for someone to whom no ‘dirt’ ever sticks.

Q: How common is the eggcorn?
Not very, actually.

Trawling Ngrams, doesn’t help much, because, for example, what look like nineteenth-century references turn out to be references to the Scotch Free Church, generally known as the Scottish Free Church (the use of ‘Scotch’ reflecting an earlier use). The earliest genuine one I’ve tracked down on Ngrams is from a 1992 novel: “The two young men, Dindial and Mascal, had gotten away scotch free.” (But see the earlier discussion.)

The figures below are from the November 2017 release of the Oxford English Corpus, the Corpus of Web-based English and the Corpus of Contemporary American English. As can be seen at a glance, the eggcorn is very much a minority tendency.

Totals 3,012/39 1,130/12 140/0 4,182/51
Form Corpus Combined:

 

OEC GloWbE COCA
scot-free 1,974 487 113 2,574
scot free 999 525 24 1,548
scotfree 39 18 3 60
scotch-free 5 2 0 7
scotch free 17 10 0 27
scotchfree 17 0 0 17

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Flaunting or flouting the law (2). If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Or flout it?


[5-6 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]

(Six-minute read.)

What’s the story (morning glory)?

In the earlier blog about these changeling verbs, we looked at what flaunt and flout are supposed to mean, and at how often they get swapped.

Writing about that made me wonder why they get confused in the first place.

Why the confusion?

There must be a reason. Nothing in language is, I am quite convinced, arbitrary; nor must this be.

Clearly, sound plays its part: the words cross the starting and finishing line together. However, rhyme they do not (i.e. are not homophones), and one has four phonemes while the other has five: /flaʊt/ and /flɔːnt/.

Sound helps, but doesn’t explain everything. Something else must be going on. And that something else is what I think I can explain below (prompted by a wise observation in the Merriam-Webster Concise Usage Dictionary).

If flaunt were a packing case, it would have ‘I DISAPPROVE!’ stamped all over it.

In fact, the Cobuild dictionary, which is hot on this kind of thing, known technically as ‘pragmatics’, makes that quite clear.

  1. If you say that someone flaunts their possessions, abilities, or qualities, you mean that they display them in a very obvious way, especially in order to try to obtain other people’s admiration. [disapproval]

They drove around in Rolls-Royces, openly flaunting their wealth.

[If you need an avatar for ‘flaunt’, think footballers’ sports cars, or Kim Kardashian (assuming, gentle reader, that you are not one of her besotted followers).]

  1. If you say that someone is flaunting themselves, you disapprove of them because they are behaving in a very confident way, or in a way that is intended to attract sexual attention.
    [disapproval]

‘She’s asking for trouble, flaunting herself like that. Did you see the way Major Winston was looking at her?’

What links these two meaning of flaunt? Hypervisibility. Or, in Cobuild’s more measured, words ‘…display them in a very obvious way.’


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A Kardashian among verbs

Anyone who flaunts themself [sic] might as well have donned a hi-vis jacket with ‘LOOK AT ME, ME, ME, MEEEEE! AREN’T I SEXY!’ emblazoned all across the back.

Now, the Cobuild definition I mentioned earlier says that if someone flaunts whatever it may be they choose to flaunt, they do so ‘in a very obvious way’.

‘In a very obvious way’ is technically an ‘adverbial adjunct’. OK, ok already: it is more than one word, and it doesn’t end in –ly, but it is doing exactly what a common or garden adverb does, which is to comment on the verb.

Which raises the question: which common or garden –ly adverbs lend their seal of disapproval to  flaunt? We have already had openly in the example above (…openly flaunting their wealth…).

But isn’t that practically tautological? After all, to flaunt means ‘to display to public view’. You can’t secretly flaunt anything, can you?

That would be to miss the point of openly, and another adverb often used, publicly. Rather than being tautological, or redundant, they both intensify the tut-tutting, finger-wagging tone inherent in flaunt. If  you describe someone as ‘openly flaunting’ something, you’re suggesting their action is morally on a par with, shall we say, kicking a baby or having public sex.

Even more common are adverbs with a positively Whitehouseian moralistic tinge: blatantly, brazenly, flagrantly.

Those adverbs form the bridge to flout.

Why this Greek flute player? Read on.

Shameless!

Dictionary definitions say nothing about visibility in relation to flout (e.g., Cobuild’s ‘If you flout something such as a law, an order, or an accepted way of behaving, you deliberately do not obey it or follow it’).

But language corpora (which are vast, computerized collections of natural language) show those same ‘visibility’ adverbs that criticise flaunt clustering round flout like bees round a honeypot: openly, flagrantly, brazenly, blatantly:

For too long these rickshaw drivers have been ignored while blatantly flouting the law.

Not only are court orders brazenly flouted, there is substantial evidence that the cleared land are [sic] not used for any development purposes, but rather, reallocated to political cronies.

Another blush-making adverb is shamelessly.

This video shows how two drivers shamelessly flouted driving rules on one of Chelmsford’s busiest roads.

The ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashian’ star shamelessly flaunted her fabulous bikini body in the vintage snap.

So, these twin features of hypervisibility and brass-necked shamelessness make the two words almost perfectly overlap in a sort of Venn of moral revulsion.


In the previous blog on this, I was wrong to say it is only flaunt that ousts flout. M-W Usage Dict. has a couple of examples of the reverse direction, as does the Global Corpus of Web-based English (GloWbE), and even Google, e.g. Put simply, no amount of drug education in schools will succeed if the law enforcement agencies allow drug dealing with impunity on our streets and drug dealers are allowed to accumulate and flout their wealth (GloWbe).


Who started the swapping?

According to The Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage (2002), the first green-ink letter about this of which they have ken was penned (and received) in 1932. Their earliest evidence of the swap is from 1918, from the Yale Review, while the OED’s is from 1923. Google Ngrams does not seem to throw up any earlier evidence.

But even such a brilliant lyricist and wit as Noel Coward could fall into the trap, according to the OED:

Although we sometimes flaunt our family conventions, Our good intentions Mustn’t be misconstrued.

N. Coward Stately Homes of Eng.in Operette(libretto) I. vii. 55, 1938

And no less august a figure than the PM at the time could be caught out too:

The Prime Minister in a broadcast on Wednesday (January 17) … referred to ‘flaunting’ the regulations.

Times 25 Jan, 1973

(Whether ‘Sailor Ted’ and ‘august’ collocate, I’ll let the reader decide.)

What about the words themselves. Where do they come from?

Flaunt

Nobody knows for sure. For flaunt (first cited in the OED from 1566) a connection with certain Scandinavian dialect words has been posited; alternatively, it might be a blend of e.g. fly, flounce with vaunt.

In its original intransitive use, one meaning was, as the OED (1896 entry) majestically puts it (underlining mine; the second underlined clause seems like a perfect definition of most social media activity): ‘Of persons: To walk or move about so as to display one’s finery; to display oneself in unbecomingly splendid or gaudy attire; to obtrude oneself boastfully, impudently, or defiantly on the public view. Often quasi-trans. to flaunt it (away, out, forth).’

This use is exemplified in Pope’s (1734) Essay on Man: Epist. IV 186:

One flaunts in Rags, one flutters in Brocade.

And in Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) VI. xxxiii. 122:   To flaunt it away in a chariot and six.

Mrs Piozzi (Hester Thrale), in 1810, aged 69, J. Jackson. Chalk & pencil portrait (detail.) Dr Johnson’s House museum, London.

 

But this use, though recorded first (1566) must surely be an extension of the literal meaning, first recorded in 1576: ‘Of plumes, banners, etc.: To wave gaily or proudly. Of plants: To wave so as to display their beauty.’

You might not think of plants being attention-seeking, but Dr Johnson’s friend and muse, Mrs Thrale/Piozzi,1 did:

Orange and lemon trees flaunt over the walls.

H.L. Piozzi, Observ. Journey France I. 59, 1789

 


The transitive use, though latent earlier in ‘to flaunt it away’ did not materialise until 1822:

The Summer air That flaunts their dewy robes.

T. Hood, Two Peacocks of Bedfont ii, in London Mag. Oct. 1822

The haberdashers flaunt long strips of gaudy calicoes.

Thackeray, Paris Sketch Bk. I. 19, 1840

Flouting and fluting

In its transitive meaning (‘To mock, jeer, insult; to express contempt for, either in word or action’) to flout appears in a 1551 translation of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia:

In moste spiteful maner mockynge…and flowtynge them.

  1. Robinsontr. T. More Vtopia sig. Aiii

and Shakespeare used it in the Scottish play2.

The unrevised OED (1897) suggests a link with a Middle English spelling of flute (verb).

‘What has a flute got to do with it?’, you may well ask.

Pan by Picasso. Lithograph.

Well, the connection seems to run like this, according to authoritative sources. It might come from Dutch fluiten ‘whistle, play the flute, hiss (in derision)’ [remember that Dutch has gifted an extraordinary number of words to English]. In support of this origin, the Oxford Online Dictionary notes, ‘German dialect pfeifen auf, literally ‘pipe at’, has a similar extended meaning’. And the OED points to hiss having evolved similarly from simple ‘noise’ word to derision.

As far as I have been able to establish, flout started to be used with ‘rules, law, etc.’-style words in the mid-nineteenth century (Corpus of Historical American) but didn’t really take off in that use until the twentieth.


1 The Grauniad review of Beryl Bainbridge’s masterly last completed novel, According to Queeney, recounting Dr Johnson’s relationship with Mrs Thrale, has an interesting use of flaunt:  ‘Bainbridge respects her reader enough not to flaunt her research, though this is a novel stitched together from original material.’

2 DUNCAN: Whence cam’st thou, worthy Thane?

ROSS: From Fife, great King,

Where the Norwegian banners flout the sky

And fan our people cold.

Norway himself, with terrible numbers,

Assisted by that most disloyal traitor,

The Thane of Cawdor, began a dismal conflict

Till that Bellona’s bridegroom [sc. Macbeth], lapped in proof,

Confronted him with self-comparisons,

Point against point, rebellious arm ‘gainst arm,

Curbing his lavish spirit; and to conclude,

The victory fell on us—

 

 


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Flaunting or flouting the law? (1)

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up  and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!


[5-6 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]

(Four-minute read.)

I’ve been prompted by a comment on this site (h/t Rick), and by seeing flaunt for flout recently, to revise and republish this post from the early days of this blog.

What’s the issue?

Put simply, it is this: Are people who write sentences such as “motorists who blatantly flaunt the regulations for their safety and well-being” (instead of flout) woefully ignorant dunderheads who need remedial English and should not be allowed into print, or are they just following a long-standing and perfectly legitimate linguistic trend?

How you answer that question defines your place on the descriptive-prescriptive spectrum (if you answered “yes”, you are probably an out-and-out prescriptivist). Your answer could also depend on where you live, and which dictionary or usage guide you take as your bible.
motorist

What do these words mean?

Though sounding similar, they have—at least in origin—rather different meanings. If you flaunt something, you show it off in a way which is brash and overdone. The very use of the word suggests that flauntyou don’t approve of whoever is doing the flaunting. Typical things that people flaunt are their wealth, their sexuality, and themselves, or bits of their anatomy (ahem!).

He flaunts his riches like everyone in the business.
Women should have it both ways—they should be able to flaunt their sexuality and be taken seriously.
Katie seemed to be flaunting herself a little too much for Elizabeth’s liking.

If you flout a law, rules, regulations, convention, and semantically related nouns, you do not obey them, and you treat them with blatant disregard.

Around 10 smokers were openly flouting the ban when the Health Board’s environmental health inspectors arrived.

Spain ‘s Duchess of Alba, known as the “rebel noble,” has died at age 88. The wealthiest woman in Spain, she was also a bohemian, famous for her eccentric style and for flouting convention in numerous ways.

In another case, it rejected the appeal of a New Mexico photographer accused of flouting anti-discrimination laws by refusing to photograph a same-sex wedding.

A quote from Chinua Achebe (1987) illustrates the confusion between the two. “Your Excellency, let us not flaunt the wishes of the people.” “Flout, you mean,” I said. “The people?” asked His Excellency, ignoring my piece of pedantry.


Unlike some other pairs of confusable words, such as lord/laud, the confusion here seems to work only in one direction. IOW, people do not use flout instead of flaunt.


What do dictionaries and usage guides say?

Merriam-Webster gives that transitive use of flaunt two definitions.
1 to display ostentatiously or impudently:
2 to treat contemptuously
while adding a note, which states that the use of flaunt in this way “undoubtedly arose from confusion with flout”, but that the contexts in which it appears cannot be considered “substandard”.

On the other side of the pond, Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) states categorically that the two words “may sound similar but they have different meanings”. oedThe 1993 draft addition to the OED entry for flaunt notes that the usage “clearly arose by confusion, and is widely considered erroneous”.

Various British usage guides maintain the distinction rigidly, and the Economist style guide’s witty note runs “Flaunt means display; flout means disdain. If you flout this distinction, you will flaunt your ignorance”. The Australian Macquarie dictionary notes “Flaunt is commonly confused with flout”.

Nevertheless, ODO admits that in the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) “the second and third commonest objects of flaunt, after wealth, are law and rules”.

What does the evidence say?

Other corpora (Corpus of Contemporary American, the NOW corpus, and the Global Corpus of web-based English (GloWbE) present a similar picture of the most frequent collocates of flaunt. For instance, in GloWbE, the most common noun object of flaunt is wealth, followed in equal second place by body and law. The other corpora show a similar pattern.

However, if you look at relative frequency, that is, at how often each verb has as its object a noun in the semantic field of “law, regulation, etc.”, things start to look rather different. For instance, in GloWbE again, you have the following (flout/flaunt) ratio:

law 287:37
laws 100:18
rules 212:25
convention 31:3

That shows a percentage of between 10 and 15 percent for flaunt with those collocates. Figures from the NOW corpus show a rather lower percentage, which may be due to its being journalistic, and therefore more ‘edited’:

law 1614:77
rules 2116:96
convention 82:4

So, while Merriam-Webster is less prescriptive than Oxford, Macquarie, and British style guides, in that it accepts the contested use, these figures suggest that many, many more writers across the twenty varieties of English represented in the corpora mentioned actually maintain the distinction than those that ignore it.

Conclusion

conclusion

Given the current state of things, any reply to my original question has to be nuanced. So, if you read something that contains collocations such as flauntrules, regulations, convention, you could try to suppress a sigh for the total collapse and degradation of the English language and just give the writer the benefit of the doubt: it is presumably part of her or his idiolect.

Flaunt has been used to mean “flout” since the 1920s, according to that draft addition to the OED entry, and appears regularly, particularly in journalistic writing. At least one dictionary recognizes it as having that meaning; in the long run, others may accept it too.

On the other hand, if you are writing or editing something, there is an argument that it would be wise to maintain the distinction, and, possibly, tactfully, raise the issue with the author. In that way, you or they might avoid the involuntary sighs of some of your (probably older) readers as they are distracted from the content of your message by what they see as a flaw in its form.


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Worst enemy or worse enemy? Eggcorns (6)


I’m my own worse enemy, I really am

In the previous blog, I mentioned the eggcorn ‘own worse enemy’, and raised various questions about the original version ‘to be one’s own worst enemy’:

  1. What is its origin?
  2. Are there similar idioms in other European languages? and…
  3. My example has plural concord (Scotland are their own worse enemy) but enemy is singular. So, how often do people say ‘enemies’ in such cases

For reasons which I hope will become clear, I’ll start with 2.

Is there a similarly worded idiom in other European languages?

Yes, in several.

(Handily, Oxford bilingual dictionaries online seem to cover the same source language (English) items, which makes comparison delightfully easy.)

For French/Italian/Portuguese and Spanish there is a word-for-word equivalent:

être son pire ennemi;
essere il peggiore nemico di se stesso;
ela
é o seu pior inimigo;
su peor enemigo es ella misma (Last two are equivalent to she’s her own worst enemy.)

German doesn’t mirror the Romance languages, and instead has niemandem schaden als sich selbst ‘to harm nobody other than oneself‘.

But, perhaps curiously, Russian mirrors the Romance languages: он сам себе злейший враг,
‘He himself to himself is his worst/most ferocious enemy’.

Now, has this same image/metaphor occurred to different people at different times in different languages, both Romance and Slavic?

Naw!

It goes without saying that languages borrow whole phrases from each other (‘It goes without saying’ is a loan-translation from French ça va sans se dire). But if a phrase spreads over several languages, it inevitably raises the suspicion that there must be a common source.

To be one’s own worst enemy’ sounds like a time-honoured cliché. And where would one look for a common source for t-h clichés? To our linguistic alma mater, Latin, of course.

Where does the phrase come from?

Searches in several sources were initially fruitless because they did not even give the phrase pageroom.  However, Garner’s Modern American Usage puts it in a list of must-avoid clichés, the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms has it, and, finally, the Penguin Dictionary of Clichés (also known as The Cat’s Pyjamas) suggests that it goes back to ‘Greek and Roman times’, an ancestry which is frustratingly vague.

However, a concatenation of googles eventually led me to none other than Cicero. In a letter to Atticus he describes Julius Caesar as

sed tamen nihil inimicius quam sibi ipse; Cicero, ad Atticum X. 12a.

Word for word, that is ‘but still, nothing is more harmful than he himself to himself’, which sounds a bit like a poor back-translation from Klingon, or Yoda’s version of ‘He’s his own worst enemy.

Yet, lo and behold (a phrase that never actually appears in the Bible, despite its pseudo-biblical patina), a translation of Cicero’s letter renders the Latin as ‘he has no worse enemy than himself’, which seems remarkably close to the modern, clichéd version.

Beyond Cicero, I can venture no further, though Google, that propagator of wrongly attributed quotes, suggests an Aristotelian origin.

They’re their own worst enemy
In the original eggcorn that led me down the primrose path of this particular phrase, we had ‘Scotland are their own worse enemy’. For American readers I suspect the plural verb reads oddly in any case, since collectives regularly take a singular verb in U.S. usage. But here what intrigued me was the singular enemy; the sentence seems to be totally AC/DC as regards singular/plural: collective + plural verb + plural possessive + singular complement.

On a strict interpretation of concord, could it be argued that their should be followed by enemies? Probably. But then the thought occurs that enemy itself has a collective meaning (1.1) that allows both singular and plural verb concord, e.g. the enemy are/is already upon us.

In one small corpus, a search for ‘their own worst enem.*’ had the two variants neatly and exactly balanced. In a larger one, enemies was preponderant in a ratio of 132:73. Below is an example of each kind.

Do France’s squabbling Socialists have a future? Lately, the Socialists have looked like their own worst enemies.

A whole generation of people has been lost. Ultimately, the terrorists are their own worst enemy. The utopian goals most terrorist organizations set leave their foes few options.

I can discern no difference between them.

All I can see is PLURAL SUBJ + PLURAL VERB + their + own.

So, is this in the end a classic case of linguistic free variation?


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Own worst enemy or own worse enemy? Eggcorns (5)

No punctuation in contractions? Well never accept it, will we?

I’m my own worse enemy, I really am

Oh, what a fount of inspiration is that little bird. Watching the Scotland vs. Ireland Six Nations Match on Saturday (10 March) and tweeting at the same time added to the thrills and spills, even if it meant missing a few crucial moments. (Even J.K. Rowling was tweeting. Gosh! Scotland lost abysmally, btw.) And it can throw up the odd language curiosity. One such was ‘Scotland are their own worse enemy’.

Yay! Another eggcorn spotted in the wild. This one is not in the ‘famed’ (how I loathe, detest and revile that word, which I only put in so that I could say quite how much…) eggcorn database, so there was no illumination to be found there as I wondered how frequent it might be.

It also piqued my curiosity in other ways.

  1. Is the eggcorn on the increase?
  2. How old is the eggcorn?
  3. How did the eggcorn come about?
  4. Where does the original phrase come from?
  5. Is there a similar idiom in other European languages? and…
  6. My example has plural concord (Scotland are their own worse enemy) but enemy is singular. So, how often do people say ‘enemies’ in such cases?

How frequent is the eggcorn?

That, I thought, is going to depend on where you look, surely?

As it turns out, it does, but the differences are not huge. Three different corpora I consulted give figures ranging from just under 2 per cent to 3.63 per cent of all occurrences of both forms.

A Google for “own worse enemy” in quotation marks scores 32,700 against “own worst enemy” at 2,590,000, but I suspect that doesn’t prove anything very much.

Is it on the increase?

I couldn’t tell you. When I entered the search string ‘own worse enemy_INF’ in Google Ngrams, it plotted a seemingly vertiginous rise from the 1980s onwards. But the numbers are so small they don’t tell you very much. If you enter both strings], i.e. …worse… and …worst…, you can see a much gentler rise for …worst…, going back to the nineteenth century.

How old is the eggcorn?

Coming across any eggcorn, one might be tempted to tut-tut, shake one’s head, and condemn modern illiteracy. If you are so tempted, refrain. Like many other eggcorns and ‘mistakes’, …own worse enemy has a venerable history—at least as far as Ngrams goes—1881 being its premiere there.

‘It is not too much to say that the man who has any interest in fruit production or selling in this State, and yet places obstructions in the way of the execution of laws intended to foster that industry, is his own worse enemy, and a blind leader of the blind.’ This seems to have to do with a crisis in the horticultural industry of aphis on pear and apple trees, i.e. probably greenfly and blackfly.

How did/does it come about?

From a meaning point of view, it baffles me. But I’m probably too close to it to see the wood for the trees. I mean, everyone can use the superlative—man’s best friend, I am the greatest, etc. If you use the comparative, as here, what’s the comparison? I’m probably overthinking, though, because there’s another explanation, which is  phonetic, and it seems quite simple. It’s yet another case of final t-/d-deletion, the same linguistic brand that is proud to bring you it’s a doggy-dog world, midrift, coal-hearted and cold slaw. Knock off the final -t of own worst enemy, and you have…

And I’m own worst enemy because I put off blogging, and then weeks go by I don’t post anything.