The Grammarphobia Blog

A yenta at the complex

Q: At my senior complex, I’ve heard a word that sounds like “flibber-de-gidget” used to describe a certain yenta. It seems to be archaic but describes the individual to a T. Would you source the word and give the correct spelling?

A: The word you mean is spelled “flibbertigibbet” in modern English.

The adjective, which is even better, is “flibbertigibbety.” I’m not making this up!

You can consult The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), or the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun is defined variously as a flighty, silly, frivolous, scatterbrained, meddlesome, chattering, or gossipy person. In other words, a yenta.

According to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the word entered English sometime before 1450, when it was spelled “flepergebet” or “flypyrgebet.” The word is thought to be imitative of the sound of meaningless chatter.

The current spelling, “flibbertigibbet,” which seems to add a syllable to the original word, was first recorded in King Lear (1605). Shakespeare uses it for one of the five fiends possessing Edgar: “This is the foule fiend Flibbertigibbet.”

Note: A reader of the blog has contributed this appearance of “flibbertigibbet” (spelled with a “j” instead of a “g”), from the song “Maria” in The Sound of Music, the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical:

How do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find a word that means Maria?
A flibbertijibbet! A will-o’-the-wisp! A clown!

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