Flummox & Flabbergast

What the heck it meant.

Dear Word Detective: I saw this on your web page and wondered what the heck it meant: “Flummoxed by flabbergast?” Now, I know what “flabbergast” means, but “flummoxed”? Please let me know. — Gary.

Golly, it sounds to me as if you’re flummoxed by “flummox.” I’d say I was flabbergasted, but that would be pushing things.

You, Gary, may know what “flabbergast” means, but we should take a moment to bring everyone else up to speed. Dating to the 18th century and most likely a combination of “flabby” or “flap” and “aghast,” the logic underlying “flabbergast,” meaning “extremely frightened or surprised,” is a bit obscure. My guess is that “flabbergast” was originally intended to conjure up visions of someone so terrified or astonished that they trembled like a bowl of Jell-O. “Flabby,” incidentally, is closely related to the old word “flappy” — to say someone is flabby is to say that they “flap” when they move, which is enough to send anyone to the gym

“Flummoxed” folks aren’t frightened or surprised, just perplexed. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “flummox” probably comes from an English dialect and is related to the dialectical word “flummock,” meaning to confuse or bewilder. The Oxford Dictionary theorizes that “flummox” may be “onomatopoeic,” meaning that it arose because it imitates the sound of throwing something down “roughly and untidily.” Personally, I’d have though “thud” would be a better imitation of that sort of sound, but “flummox” is much more fun to say, so I won’t look that particular gift horse in the mouth.

 

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