Flimflam / Claptrap

We’ll always have Flapdoodle.

Dear Word Detective:  In my research for a Civil War novel I’m doing, I ran across a quotation of Robert E. Lee’s (back when he was a colonel) in which he referred to an unreliable report as “All flam and claptrap.”  Naturally, I thought of you.  The sense of the term is “nonsense,” but I find the origins nowhere.  “Claptrap” was a favorite epithet of my father’s, but “flam”?  Perhaps from “flim-flam,” which leaves me with “flim,” also obscure.  Assistance please. — Barry Longyear.

I think it’s notable, and weirdly inspiring, that some of our most colorful English words are used to mean “nonsense.”  Just a quick skip through Roget’s Thesaurus under “nonsense” produces babble, blather, blatherskite, gabble, gibberish, jabber, jabberwocky, twaddle, balderdash, bunkum, claptrap, drivel, piffle, poppycock, rigmarole, tommyrot, applesauce, baloney, bilge, hooey, and malarkey (although for some reason they left out my favorite, “horsefeathers”).

Your hunch tracing “flam” to “flim-flam” (or “flimflam,” as it’s most often spelled today) is right on the mark.  “Flim-flam” dates back to the 16th century, and from the beginning meant “nonsense or idle talk” as well as “humbug, a flimsy pretense or deception.”  The distinctive trait  to “flim-flam” is its transparency;  a “flim-flam” is not a sophisticated scam or con but rather the sort of shallow trick that a reasonable person wouldn’t fall for.  As a verb, for example, “flim-flam” in the US came to mean specifically “to distract or confuse a customer so as to be able to shortchange him.”  The origin of “flimflam” is somewhat uncertain, but the “flim” part may be based on a English dialectical word of Scandinavian origin similar to the Old Norse “flim” (a lampoon or mockery).  Such a Norse origin of “flim,” if true, would be a legacy of the Viking invasions of Britain in the 8th to 11th centuries.

The form “flim-flam” is what linguists call “reduplication,” the repetition of a word with a slight change for emphasis (e.g., whim-wham, okey-dokey, etc.).  Oddly enough, although the “flam” part is simply a variant of “flim,” it apparently achieved escape velocity and became a word in its own right almost as soon as “flim-flam” appeared.  Thus we find “flam” being used as early as the 17th century (“All pretences to the contrary are nothing but cant and cheat, flam and delusion,” 1692) as a simple synonym for “flim-flam.”  This makes Lee’s use of “flam” in that quotation entirely logical.

“Claptrap,” incidentally, has a wonderfully sardonic origin.  It’s theater slang from the 18th century, originally meaning a line or speech in a play shamelessly designed to elicit (“trap”) applause (“claps”) from the audience.  A stirring speech by a character praising the national spirit, for instance, would almost certainly rouse the crowd, but was considered cheap “claptrap”  by many playwrights and actors (“There will be no clap-traps, nothing about ‘Britannia rule the Waves’,” 1799).  By the 19th century, “claptrap” had broadened from meaning “cheap, showy language” to its current meaning of “nonsense, silly rubbish.”

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