Founder / Flounder

Flounders founder, woodchucks chuck, film at 11.

Dear Word Detective:  Some time ago, perhaps circa 1975, I remember reading a very convincing column in the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Sun Times (I believe) which mentioned that even the more educated people misuse the word “flounder” in the context of being perplexed and put badly off balance, while the more accurate word is “founder,” which I had always thought meant only “to sink beneath the waves” as most folks use it.  Since I’ve not read or heard anything further to settle this quibble, can you tell me which you believe is the more correct word to use in this sense?  Thank you for clearing this up. — Don Brennecke.

I’ll do my best, but lately I’ve been having trouble explaining much of anything to anybody, including myself.  I think I may be paying too much attention to reality.  By the way, that column you read about 35 years ago may well have been written by my parents, William and Mary Morris.  Starting in 1954, my father (joined later by my mother) wrote  a syndicated newspaper column called “Words, Wit and Wisdom,” answering readers’ questions about word origins and usage, which eventually ran in hundreds of papers in the US and abroad.  This column is a continuation of that creation, now in its 55th year of uninterrupted publication.

The matter of “founder” versus “flounder” is exactly the sort of question my parents delighted in exploring, and in their Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1985), they delivered a concise verdict:  “These two verbs are often confused and consequently misused.  ‘Flounder’ means to ‘thrash about,’ as would an animal mired in mud.  ‘Founder’ means to ‘fail completely, collapse or sink.’…”

To begin at the beginning, the verb “to founder” means, in its basic sense, “to sink completely, collapse,” or, in an extended sense, “to fail utterly.” The source of “founder” was the Old French “fondrer,” meaning “submerge, send to the bottom,” and its ultimate root is the Latin “fundus,” meaning “bottom” (which also gave us the words “foundation,” “found” and “fundamental,” among others).

“Flounder” as a verb is an odd bird.  (The noun “flounder,” a kind of flat fish, is etymologically unrelated to the verb “to flounder”).  The verb “to flounder” is almost certainly an alteration of “to founder,” influenced by other verbs, such as “blunder,” depicting clumsy or frantic motion.  When “flounder” first appeared in the 16th century, it meant “to stumble,” and later “to struggle clumsily.”  A bit later on, it came to mean “to struggle along with great difficulty.”

The confusion between “founder” and “flounder” arises when the extended figurative uses of the words converge.  If clueless Jim has been promoted to sales manager and can’t handle the job, he may well “flounder” (struggle along) for a few months before he “founders” (fails) completely.  In the example you gave, I would tend to think that “flounder” was actually the proper word, but without knowing the exact wording, it’s hard to be certain.

5 comments on this post.
  1. William:

    I believe there is a typo in your final example of the sales manager for http://www.word-detective.com/2009/04/03/founder-flounder/

  2. words1:

    Fixed it — thanks. That really didn’t make any sense, did it?

  3. Herb Reeves:

    Although “flounder” has two etymologically distinct definitions, the one meaning “fish” offers the perfect mnemonic to distinguish the two verbs, “flounder” and “founder.”

    “Flounder” is exactly what the fish does when caught and thrown on deck. (And also what my brain does when attempting to remember the spelling of “mnemonic.”)

  4. Dirk Poppen:

    Let’s make this more confusing and talk about a house foundering

  5. John Amneus:

    There’s a dangerous medical condition that horses get, called ‘foundering’. If I recall correctly, it occurs when the horse eats too much. Presumably, it shares the general meaning of ‘sinking’, or ‘going down’. Any idea when this usage began?

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