Dear Word Detective: I love community theater and am lucky enough to have been cast in several musical productions. We are currently presenting “The Sound of Music” and are intrigued by the word “flibbertigibbet” which we, as the nuns, use to describe Maria. I am imagining it comes from the flitting to and fro of butterflies or birds. But I am asking for your help with its origin. — Marsha.
The hills are alive … run! You know, every so often I realize that I’ve never actually seen “The Sound of Music,” just the same few movie clips over and over on the TV. (We call it “the TV” out here in the boonies.) But that doesn’t seem to prevent that darn song from running through my head.
I haven’t heard anyone actually use the term “flibbertigibbet” aloud in years, and even Google News comes up with only an anemic twenty-six hits for print use lately. I did, however, have the word on my mind a some months ago after seeing the film “Julie & Julia,” a painfully tedious chronicle of one blogger’s attempt to leverage unearned fame and fortune on the life and reputation of the late Julia Child, author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” I would characterize “Julie & Julia” as essentially a very boring vampire movie. Anyway, Meryl Streep, adding insult to injury in my view, chose to portray Child as a whooping flibbertigibbet, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “a silly, scatterbrained, or garrulous person,” and which Child was definitely not.
Onward. “Flibbertigibbet” is an interesting, and more than slightly mysterious, word. As far as anyone has been able to determine so far, it first appeared in print in 1549, with essentially the same “blithering fool” meaning it has today. Though “flibbertigibbet” is, strictly speaking, a gender-neutral word, in practice it is, and long has been, usually applied to women.
Although that basic sense of “flibbertigibbet” has been in constant use since the mid-16th century, there have been two interesting exceptions. In King Lear (1605), Shakespeare used “Flibbertigibbet” as the name of a demon (“The foule Flibbertigibbet … hurts the poore Creature of earth”), apparently drawing the name from a list of such creatures published several years earlier. Two centuries later, Sir Walter Scott, in his novel Kenilworth (1821), used “Flibbertigibbet” as the nickname of an impish, impetuous child. Until “King Lear,” incidentally, “flibbertigibbet” had been spelled in a wide variety of ways (including “flybbergybe” and “flebergebet”) but Shakespeare’s version became the standard spelling (apart from occasional excursions such as “Flibber de’ Jibb” later in the 17th century).
The source of “flibbertigibbet” was, as far as anyone has been able to tell, our old friend onomatopoeia, the “echoic” formation of a word in imitation of a sound or other characteristic of a thing. “Flibbertigibbet” almost certainly arose as an attempt to duplicate the sound of someone babbling or prattling on in meaningless chatter.
The air-brained motormouths among us have given us more than just “flibbertigibbet,” of course. The words “babble,” “prattle” and “chatter” all also originated as onomatopoeic attempts to replicate the sound of someone who has nothing to say but simply will not shut up.