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shameless pleading

Four Flusher

It’s for sale. So buy it, and nobody gets hurt.

Dear Word Detective: I was told that the phrase “floor flusher” was associated with late 19th century department stores employees sent out on to the “floor” to help “flush out” potential customers. True? Or charming but false? — Carolyn.

Are those my only choices? How about “very strange and really, really wrong in several different ways”? But thanks for the great question, and I’m not being sarcastic. Were it not for folks sending me the strange word origin stories they’ve heard, writing this column wouldn’t be half as much fun. Right now, for instance, I’m picturing a large man, a sort of “reverse bouncer” bearing a carnation in his lapel and a cattle prod in his paw, approaching a herd of apprehensive Macy’s shoppers with a cheery “Can I help youse?”

flusher08.pngOnward. If you plug “floor flusher” into Google, you get more than 57,000 ghits (short for “Google hits”), so it may come as a surprise when I say that “floor flusher” is not actually the phrase you’re looking for. The slang term is “four flusher,” meaning “a bluffer, a cheat, a worthless, dishonest person.” Those Google hits are almost all for a 1954 Popeye cartoon entitled “Floor Flusher” (available on YouTube.com) in which Bluto and Popeye wrestle for the right to fix Olive Oyl’s plumbing problems. At one point (yes, I watched it), after Bluto has completely flooded her house, Olive shouts, “Don’t touch me, you floor flusher!” The cartoon’s title is thus a pun on “four flusher.” The pun works because, by 1954, “four flusher” had been popular American slang for at least fifty years.

The actual origin of “four flusher” was the game of poker, where a “flush” is a high hand composed of five cards of the same suit. (The roots of “flush” in this poker sense are obscure, but may refer to the hand “washing away” the other players.) A “flush” of only four cards, however, is worthless, and to “four-flush” — to bluff other players with such a hand — became a metaphor for feigning knowledge, accomplishment or courage (“‘I thought he was going to fight.’ ‘Not that boy. He was four-flushin’.” George Ade, “Artie,” 1896).

17 comments to Four Flusher

  • Lynne Gonzalez

    Thanks for giving the background of four flusher. I remember my dad using that term constantly when I was small, and I would get it wrong and repeat it as floor flusher. Now I know.

  • Rob

    I first heard it in the Buggs Bunny cartoon.
    “My Bunny Lies over the Sea” 1948

    Buggs calls McCrory a flour flusher during a game of golf.

  • i used to do DIY plumbing at home at my work seems to be on par with regular plumbers.”"-

  • Having just watched the silent “The Show Off” (1926) with Louise Brooks, in one of the title cards, Lulu called the character Aubrey a ‘Floor Flusher’. Maybe that was a typo? This movie is second-billed on a DVD with Clara Bow’s “The Plastic Age”, which is funny, because a character in that movie calls someone else a ‘four flusher’!

    Thanks for the definition.

  • sky

    My boyfriend told me that it was fore flusher; meaning a man who flushes the urinal before he finishes peeing in it. A Fore Flusher is therefore a man who is lazy (flushing before he’s finished just to hurry up and get the flushing motion over and done with….leaving smelly pee in the urinal for someone else to clean up.) Then I just heard Clark Gabel ask his wife if she thought he was what sounded like a fore flusher, but now that I googled that, I found out he must have been speaking of Four Flusher as in your description. Anybody else ever here of the Fore Flusher term?

  • sky

    So, if you think about it, the character of men who either Four Flush or Fore Flush is similar. I could definately see a Four Flusher Fore Flushing, and visa-versa.

  • catfreak

    I searched for the term ‘fourflusher’ after seeing it used for an episode of The Rifleman.

    In the episode, there was a man who tried his darndest to cheat and finagle his way into winning an entire wheat crop as well as $1000 . . .

    cf

  • Jim

    Thank you for your answer to my question; defining the term four flusher. After reading the replies however, I feel like the guy who asked a stranger for the correct time and said stranger told him how to make a watch. Keep the faith.

  • Robert Burke

    Four flusher is a person so full of s**t that he or she needs to flush four times….hence “four flusher”

  • Sandbox

    There is also an episode of Popeye called “The Royal Four Flusher.” That means there is both an episode for Four Flusher and floor flusher.

  • Dave

    I heard this term from the NBC Sunday Night Movie — I think it was in the early 1990′s — LBJ The Early Years. Lyndon Johnson’s first job in Washington D.C. was as an assistant to Congressman Clayburg. His nasty wife called Lyndon Johnson a four flusher the day she fired him. A woman firing a man? Where was this — on Mars?

  • I was watching a movie with Clark Gable in it called “Homecoming” made in 1948. Someone called Gable’s character a ‘Four Flusher’. This caused his character to react strongly. Curious, I went on Dictionary.com, and put in ‘floor flusher’ and found out it was actually ‘Four Flusher’. Thanks for educating me in the meaning of the term.

  • Ron

    In poker it might be a little more subtle. It’s the player who lucks-out in Texas Holdem, when he has only one of the suit in his hand. Not a skilled player.

  • Jeremy

    Sean Penn calls an unknown guy a “four-flusher” in the movie Sweet & Lowdown. Emmet Ray(Penn) says he burned a $100 bill to trump the FF’s $20.’I could cut that kinda stuff out’ he says. The phrase was common enough in the 30′s & used appropriately. Empty boaster. I always knew the phrase from movies & books. I understood the supposition was insultingly negative. After briefly researching I now know why.

  • Greg

    I always heard this line from Disney’s The Jungle Book, but I always thought the panther was calling Baloo a “fore-fletcher” at the end of the movie. I just came across it again lately while reading comics. In Batman #16 from 1943, the Joker was referred to as a “four-flusher”. The little lightbulb blinked on above my head.

  • StevenKeys

    What a terrific explanation, TWD: thorough, not haughty and good, clean fun, to boot. Hey, what’s the genesis on that last bit (“to boot”)?

  • This explanation is years old, but I thought I would add: since Google indexes past issues of newspapers, you can now find interesting historical usage for lots of terms. For example, this letter from a 1909 Spokane newpaper is headlined “Flour Flusher Better Than Man Who Won’t Put Up Dukes”, but that appears to be a typo because the text of the article uses the term four-flusher, and in the manner described by Mr. Morris:

    http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1338&dat=19090211&id=VrpXAAAAIBAJ&sjid=_vMDAAAAIBAJ&pg=4306,4132155

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