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Flaunting and flouting

Q: While looking into the common but erroneous substitution of “flaunt” for “flaut,” I was flabbergasted to find no entry for “flaut” in any of the dictionaries aggregates. Did I slide into an alternate universe where this word doesn’t exist, or am I simply deranged? PS: To prevent Google Mail from flagging “flaut’ as an error, I had to add it to my email dictionary.

A: You’re right that many people use “flaunt” to mean “flout” (the correct spelling of the word you’re looking for). In fact, a couple of standard dictionaries now accept the usage, though all the rest stick to the traditional view of the two words.

Traditionally, the verb “flaunt” means to show off something ostentatiously or to act in an ostentatious way, while the verb “flout” means to openly or contemptuously disregard something.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), which takes the traditional view, says in a usage note: “For some time now flaunt has been used in the sense ‘to show contempt for,’ even by educated users of English. But this usage is still widely seen as erroneous.”

“In our 2009 survey,” the dictionary adds, “73 percent of the Usage Panel rejected it in the sentence This is just another example of an executive flaunting the rules for personal gain.”

However, the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged and Merriam-Webster Dictionary accept without comment (that is, as standard English) the use of “flaunt” to mean “to treat contemptuously: flout.”

The subscription-based Unabridged gives the example “flaunt army regulations,” while the free M-W dictionary cites this comment by the poet and critic Louis Untermeyer: “flaunted the rules.”

We use “flaunt” and “flout” in the traditional way, and that’s what Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage guide, recommends: “To flout is to defy or ignore. To flaunt is to show off. When Bruce ran that stop sign, he was flouting the law and flaunting his new Harley.”

Other usage guides agree. In Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), for example, R. W. Burchfield writes that “flaunt is often wrongly used for flout,” a usage that “has been particularly prevalent since the 1940s.”

And in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Bryan A. Garner says: “Confusion about these terms is so distressingly common that some dictionaries have thrown in the towel and now treat flaunt as a synonym of flout. But the words are best kept separate.”

The less traditional Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage offers a justification for using “flaunt” to mean “flout,” but ultimately recommends avoiding the usage:

“Both words are used to describe open, unashamed behavior, and both typically suggest disapproval of such behavior. … Add to this similarity of use the obvious similarity of the words themselves, and you have a situation ripe for confusion.

“It is an oversimplification, however, to say that the use of flaunt to mean ‘to treat with contemptuous disregard’ is merely the result of confusion … those who now use it do so not because they are confused—they do so because they have heard and seen it so often that its use seems natural and idiomatic. They use it, in other words, because they are familiar with it as an established sense of flaunt.

“No one can deny that this sense of flaunt is now alive and well, despite its lowly origins.

“Nevertheless, the notoriety of flaunt used for flout is so great and the belief that it is simply an error so deep-seated and persistent, that we think you well-advised to avoid it, at least when writing for publication.”

As for the etymology, both verbs showed up in the 1500s, “flout” first and “flaunt” a decade later.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “flout,” meaning to mock or express contempt for someone or something, may have begun life as a dialectal form of floute, Middle English for “to play the flute.” The OED notes “a similar development of sense in Dutch fluiten to play the flute, to mock, deride.”

The first citation for “flout” in the dictionary is from Ralph Robinson’s 1551 translation of Utopia, a Latin work of fiction by Thomas More: “In moste spiteful maner mockynge … and flowtynge them.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “flaunt” is of unknown origin, though it cites several theories, including a suggestion that it may be a coined word formed from blending terms like “flounce” and “vaunt.”

The first OED citation for “flaunt” (“to walk or move about so as to display one’s finery”) is from a 1566 translation by the English clergyman Thomas Drant of the Roman poet Horace’s satires: “In suits of silkes to flaunte.”

Before ending, we should note that “flout” is occasionally used to mean “flaunt.” But as Merriam-Webster’s Usage notes, “it is extremely uncommon and can only be regarded as a genuine error.”

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