Flub, et al.

The F Words.

Dear Word Detective: Could it be a fluke? Frankly, I’m a bit flummoxed by this flummadiddle: — has the word “flub” simply been rejected by the Word Detective like so much flotsam, or am I the first to ask you to ferret out its origin? — Marc Botts.

Hey pal, I wasn’t born yesterday. That isn’t a question. That’s six questions about six different “F” words. So now I’ll have to chop my way through all the words you used in your question to reach the word you actually asked about. I swan, the folderol gets worse every day. Make that seven words.

To begin at the beginning, the “fluke” in your question originally meant an accidental lucky shot in billiards when it first appeared in English in the 19th century. (This “fluke” is unrelated to either the “fluke” fish or “fluke” meaning one of the broad blades of a ship’s anchor.) The origin of the billiards “fluke” is unknown, but it may be drawn from the English dialect word “fluke” meaning “a guess.” Most dictionaries still define “fluke” as “an unexpected success,” but the sense you use, that of “a rare exception,” but not necessarily a good one, seems to be gaining currency.

“Flummox,” meaning “to perplex or confuse,” comes from another English dialect word, “flummock,” meaning “to bewilder.” The origin of “flummock” is unknown, but, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it may have arisen as an attempt to duplicate the sound of throwing something down on the ground in disgust.

“Flummadiddle,” meaning “nonsense,” dates to the 19th century and seems to be based on “flummery,” a simple English dessert made from bits of whatever one has on hand, usually minimally including oatmeal, eggs and sugar.

“Flotsam,” literally the wreckage of a ship found floating on the water (and figuratively any assortment of unimportant debris) comes from the Old French “floter,” to float. “Jetsam” is flotsam that has been jettisoned, deliberately thrown overboard.

“Ferret,” meaning “to search out,” comes from the animal of the same name, once used to hunt mice and rats. The word “ferret” comes from the Old French “furion,” literally “thief.”

“Folderol,” since I brought it up, is “nonsense,” dates to the 18th century, and came from the meaningless nonsense refrains sometimes used in old songs (“Fol-de-rol-de-rido liddle iddle-ol,” Robert Browning, 1864).

And now the envelope, please. Oops. The origin of “flub,” meaning “to bungle” or, as a noun, “a mistake,” is, unfortunately, unknown. “Flub” first appeared in the 1920s, and may well be “echoic” in origin, an attempt to express in sound the feeling of failing because of a simple silly mistake.

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