The Grammarphobia Blog

A highfalutin word?

Q: John Edwards used “highfalutin” in the recent debate for Democratic presidential candidates. I think of it as rural and maybe Southern. Have you got anything else?

A: The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has oodles of citations for “highfalutin” (spelled variously). The first, from 1839, is a quotation in which the term means pompous or bombastic: “Them high-faluting chaps.” Random House says the origin of the term is unknown, but it’s probably influenced by “high-flown.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), which defines the word as pompous or pretentious, lists three spellings: “highfalutin,” “hifalutin,” and the less common “highfaluting.” American Heritage says it has been suggested that the term may come from “flute”—so someone who thinks too highly of himself is “high-fluting.”

The dictionary says “highfalutin” is characteristic of American folk speech, but it’s not a true regionalism, Southern or otherwise, because it has occurred throughout the country.

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