Friday, December 4, 2009

‘When You Got It, Flaunt It!’

Stop the presses! No, no, in this case, keep them rolling. It is rare to encounter the verbs flaunt and flout in the same newspaper article—and, moreover, used correctly. But such was the case in a New York Times piece by Lawrence Sheets.  Writing about the Russian-Georgian conflict, he observed, “As if to flaunt their impunity…the Russians refused to let the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conduct observation patrols…”  Later Mr. Sheets insisted that “Moscow is openly flouting the cease-fire agreement it signed.…”

As if you didn’t already know, flaunt from Old Norse flanan (“to run around”) means to “display ostentatiously,” as Max Bialystock shouts to the world in The Producers: “That’s it, baby, when you got it, flaunt it!” Flout  (from Middle English flouten, “to play the flute”) means to “treat with contempt,” as Ross complains to Duncan in Macbeth:  “Norwegian banners flout the sky.”

But wait!  The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary says a secondary meaning of flaunt is “to treat contemptuously” (i.e. “to flout”), and it lists authors no less distinguished than Louis Untermeyer, Marchette Chute,  and R. T. Blackburn—writing in the Bulletin of the American Association of University Profesors, to boot!—as evidence.  The lexicographer adds, however, that if you use flaunt in that way, people may think you’re wrong.

What to do?  What to do?  The flat-footed Bard of Buffalo Bayou flounced in, fluttered a bit, and fluted as follows:

    Flaunt or flout?
    Flout or flaunt?
    Day in, day out,
    They tease and taunt.

    But I’m undaunted
    And never doubted
    They're often flaunted
    But seldom flouted.

1 comment:

  1. See, THIS is why I try to avoid M-W dictionaries whenever possible, and rely on the OED as much as I can. (Of course, the OED has allowed such inanities as "D'oh!", providing evidence that the barbarians are not even at the gates but have breached them.)