Flout / Flaunt

This just in: It depends.

Dear Word Detective: I was out at dinner with a friend of mine who is a principal at a local high school. I mentioned the ironic situation in a book that I read. This was a book on writing, and within a mere fifty pages it used the term “to flaunt the rules” about half a dozen times. I joked snootily that the author misused it, the editor and proofreaders missed it, etc. My principal friend responded, “What’s wrong with that?” and I, being the sanctimonious word jerk that I am, took it upon myself to educate him as to the difference between “flout” and “flaunt.” I then went to pee. When I returned he had his iPhone in hand and said, “Hey, the ‘flaunt the rules’ thing sounded right to me, so I checked it out.” He then proceeded to blow my verbal mind. On the screen were dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster.com, both of which listed one of the definitions of “flaunt” as “to disregard, treat with disdain.” My questions are: 1) Has the whole world gone crazy and if so, when did this start happening? and 2) Does it officially make one an 80-year old man trapped in a 30-year old man’s body when one hears oneself say, “Well, there goes the language”? Please keep me from defecting to Latin. — Dave.

Well, times change, you know. Just a few years ago, for example, I’d have been in serious trouble for letting you use the word “pee” in your question. Today nobody cares … hold on, there’s someone at the door.

OK, I’m back. Who gave my eighth-grade English teacher a Taser? Anyway, as I was saying, language is set in stone and there are certain immutable rules which must always be observed. Just kidding. Language changes constantly, often in some very annoying ways. Good luck stopping it.

To begin at the beginning, “flaunt” first appeared in the 16th century, from unknown origins, and means “to display ostentatiously” (as in “Flaunting one’s wealth”). “Flout” appeared roughly at the same time, possibly drawn from the Middle English “flouten” (literally “to play the flute,” which was used idiomatically to mean “to mock or jeer”). Today “flout” means “to treat with contemptuous disregard,” as in “Senators often flout the ethics rules.”

Use of “flaunt” to mean “disregard” began cropping up in print in the early 20th century, and it’s been driving usage mavens bonkers ever since. There is no doubt that this usage sprang from a confusion of “flaunt” with “flout,” so on that level it’s definitely an error. But it’s an understandable error, since both words depict obnoxiously arrogant public behavior, they strongly resemble each other in both form and sound, and there is even a chance that “flout” and “flaunt” may have been the same word at one time.

Now we come to a classic dilemma in English usage and lexicography. All major English usage books continue to label the substitution of “flaunt” for “flout” as a slam-dunk error. But the usage is so widespread that dictionaries would be remiss if they didn’t list the common “disregard” usage of “flaunt” as a secondary definition. The job of a dictionary is to describe how language is used, not to rap the knuckles of (or to Tase) its users.

The imperfect solution is to continue to observe the distinction yourself but not to freak out (or lapse into lecturing) when confronted with the “wrong” usage of “flaunt” to mean “disregard.” The flip side of that coin is that you should be especially careful when speaking to, or writing for, an audience that is likely to know the difference between the words. That the book on writing you mention used the disputed “flaunt” repeatedly is indeed surprising, but may be an indication that the days of “flout” are fading faster than I had thought.

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