Monday, November 06, 2006

The Daily Hump: Highfalutin

For your Monday morning enjoyment I give you highfalutin, a purely American word with an unknown etymology and, I imagine, most often muttered by Yosemite Sam-like characters. The word, meaning pompous or pretentious, has been around since the 19th c, first appearing in 1839. The OED theorizes that -falutin is "a whimsical pronunciation of fluting, or a grandiose equivalent of flying or flown. The AHD offers this morsel of info:
H.L. Mencken, in his famous book The American Language, mentions highfalutin as an example of the many native U.S. words coined during the 19th-century period of vigorous growth. Although highfalutin is characteristic of American folk speech, it is not a true regionalism because it has always occurred in all regions of the country, with its use and popularity spurred by its appearance in print. The origin of highfalutin, like that of many folk expressions, is obscure. It has been suggested that the second element, –falutin, comes from the verb flute—hence high-fluting, a comical indictment of people who think too highly of themselves.
My suspicion is -falutin is a corruption of flaunt. Pompous and pretentious people flaunt themselves; the AHD even defines pretentious as "Making or marked by an extravagant outward show; ostentatious. See synonyms at showy"--showy and ostentatious are certainly similar to flaunt in meaning. We know the word flaunt was in use in America during the years when highfalutin first appeared; Washington Irving used the word in 1821's Sketch Book ("The Miss Lambs might now be seen flaunting along the street in French bonnets." [OED]). The etymology of flaunt, like highfalutin, is unknown; however, the OED suggests that "Possibly the word [flaunt] may be an onomatopoeia formed with a vague recollection of fly, flout". Thus, regardless of the theories outlined above, it's possible all roads ultimately lead to flute.

highfalutin [AHD]
pretentious [AHD]


:: posted by David, 8:35 AM


Add a comment