Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you


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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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