Up in the air.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did “high falutin’” come from?  Did I spell it correctly? — Julie.

Yes you did, and while I’m sure there are many “high falutin” folks out there who would insist that “faluting” is the proper form, rest assured that they are wrong.  The only slight correction I would offer is that “highfalutin” is usually seen as one word, and the apostrophe at the end isn’t really necessary.  Although “highfalutin” is clearly a cropped form of “highfaluting,”  “highfalutin” (no apostrophe) is listed as the primary spelling by the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Highfalutin,” of course, means “pompous, arrogant, haughty, pretentious” or “excessively ornate or bombastic (especially in speech).”  The sense of “pretentious” is central to “highfalutin.”  Someone who affects a “highfalutin” manner, acting or speaking in an extremely proper or self-important style, is basically faking it and “putting on airs,” floating along in a balloon of pretense that has no basis in reality (“When all the highfalutin and magical jargon of diplomacy is removed, you’ll find the diplomats like a group of children aged about three or four,” 1948).

So much for the easy part.  As I noted about a decade ago when I first tackled “highfalutin,” the origin of the word is uncertain.  The reader who sent in that question in 1999 had heard that “highfalutin” originally denoted a fine grade of flour used to make a superior sort of bread.  That theory (for which there is no evidence) turned out to be based on a probable  confusion of “highfalutin” with “high gluten” flour, which does indeed produce a better grade of bread.

We do know that “highfalutin” is an American coinage and first appeared in the mid-1800s.  “Highfalutin” was one of a number of popular epithets of the day, including “stuffed shirt” and “stuck-up,” with which 19th century Americans expressed their disrespect for those who flaunted their wealth and power.

While the origin of “highfalutin” may be a mystery, there are two generally accepted hunches, either of which might be true.  The “high” in “highfalutin” is almost certainly our common adjective, signifying either physical height or, figuratively, magnitude.

Some authorities suggest that the “falutin” in “highfalutin” is a modification of “fluting,” meaning to play a flute or produce sounds similar to those made by a flute.  Perhaps, goes this theory, “highfalutin” was inspired by the airy, delicate speech tones of  hoity-toity rich folks.  There’s no evidence to support this theory, but it’s not implausible.

The other popular theory traces the “falutin” to “flying” or “flown,” making “highfalutin” the equivalent of “high-flown,” meaning “exaggerated” or “elevated.”  What makes this theory the more plausible of the two is the fact that “high-flown” has been used as an adjective meaning “extravagant or bombastic” since the mid-1600s (“Sentiments, which are occasionally too high-flown and overstrained, 1784), so this theory is actually grounded in an existing idiom.

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