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shameless pleading






Fan mail from some flounder.

Dear Word Detective:  Recently one of our four giant cats (all Maine Coons) showed me he’s figured out how to undo a mechanical latch on a little decorative box we have in our hearth room.  I wondered to myself if it was a fluke, or whether it’s just a matter of time before they figure out the can opener, and I should start watching my back. Which leads me to: when did “fluke” start to mean “by random chance” instead of what I presume was the original usage (fin-like)? — Christopher Schultz.

Good question, but I should warn you about your cat.  He didn’t “show” you that he’d learned to work that latch.  You simply caught him at it.  Many cats know all sorts of things but pretend to be clueless because it gives them a tactical advantage.  For instance, I happen to know that our cat Gus can open a door by turning the doorknob.  I’ve seen him do it from the next room.  But he never does it when he knows I’m watching.  I just wish he’d close the closet door when he’s done in there.

The connection between “fluke” in the sense of “fin” and “fluke” meaning “a lucky accident” is easy to explain.  There is no connection, and the two words, as far as anyone has been able to determine, are completely unrelated.  There are actually three separate “flukes” in English:  a kind of flatfish similar to the flounder, the triangular pointy things on the end of each arm of an anchor, and the “dumb luck” demonstrated by your cat.

Of the three types of “fluke,” the flatfish is the easiest to explain.  “Fluke” in this sense is drawn from the Old Norse word for the critter, “floke,” which in turn is related to Germanic roots meaning “flat,” which flukes and flounders certainly are.  Those same Germanic roots also produced “flake” and the word “flat” itself.

The origin of the “triangular plate at the tip of an anchor” kind of “fluke,” which first appeared in the 16th century, is a mystery.  Some authorities, however, believe it is derived from the “flatfish” sense of “fluke,” perhaps because of a resemblance between the flatness of the fish and the anchor tips.  This seems entirely reasonable to me, especially since both words sprang  from the world of seafaring.  The use of “fluke” to mean “one of the two parts of a whale’s   triangular tail” (or simply “fin” in a looser sense) comes from the resemblance of the tail to the pointed tips of an anchor.

That leaves the “lucky accident” sense of “fluke” to explain.  We do know for a fact that “fluke” in this sense was originally a billiards term meaning “a lucky shot,” and first appeared in the mid-1800s.  Unfortunately, no one has ever been able to pin down the exact origin of this “fluke,” although within a few years after its first appearance it was being used outside the billiards hall to mean simply “a stroke of good luck” (“Whose run-away horse he had stopped …by the merest fluke,” 1889), and soon after was even used to mean “a sudden gust of wind.”  The best theory so far about the origin of this “fluke” traces it to an old English dialect word “fluke” meaning “guess.”  It may never be possible to definitively prove this source, but it seems a small jump from meaning “guess” to “lucky shot,” and I’d say that dialect word is almost certainly the source of this kind of “fluke.”

9 comments to Fluke

  • Yes, Maine Coon is very intelligent cat. But (here you right) almost always trying to hide his life experience. Maybe, afraid, that we’ll begin to teach him more? :-)

  • Does fluke have anything to do with
    the fact that whalers would stamp their
    log books with an image of a whales tail
    Or fluke when a whale got away

  • […] Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:Like Loading… This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged an Ghaeilge, bad linguistics, Daniel Cassidy, fluke, fo-luach, foluach, Gaeilge, How The Irish Invented Slang, Irish, Irish language, rare reward on September 21, 2013 by Debunker. […]

  • Scott

    Does this passage from Sun Tzu from 500bc contain an accurate translation then? Or did the translator take some liberties?

    “Therefore the victories of good warriors are not noted for cleverness or bravery. Therefore their victories in battle are not flukes. Their victories are not flukes because they position themselves where they will surely win, prevailing over those who have already lost.” ~Sun Tzu

  • word!

    Fluke as lucky shot: Maybe the billiard slang was meant to mean something like slim chance. A fluke shot makes it it by a very thin margin. Imagine it in some 19th Century billiard hall with beer and english accents and it begins to sound plausible. But the fact that there is the fluke=guess possibility might make it less so.

  • Bradley

    I know that seeing a whale is rare and lucky. often it is lucky just to see their tail. A lucky chance would be a fluke.

  • Ed Emery

    On the River Teign in Devon (historically one of the best flounder rivers in the country) for at least a century the local people (and boys especially) practised what they call “fluking”. This involves walking up the river at low tide, at a time when the water is thick with flounders, and simply spiking them as you walk. They used a variety of spearing instruments. Some had formidable worked iron multi-prong tridents with a short wooden handle, presumably made by a local blacksmith. Others would improvise with an only broom head driven through with nine inch nails. And the most rudimentary was simply a sharpened stick, but equipped with a notch at the sharp end so that the flounder could not escape once speared. The fish are bottom feeders, and like to come upriver in the shallow waters of a rising tide. They were so plentiful that you could almost walk on them. The UK record for the largest recorded flounder catch was set in 1994, caught by Bob Sokell and weighing 5lb 7oz. The Teign no longer has those numbers of flounder. Perhaps this is a result of excesses of fluking in the past. Perhaps it is because raw sewage is no longer (or only rarely) pumped into the river. Or perhaps, as some people suggest, the flounder are being netted offshore by commercial fishermen for use as bait for lobster and crab pots. Although flounders are not prized as food fish, many local people have memories of taking home four or five sizeable flounders for tea after a couple of hours of fluking on the river.

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