Dear Word Detective: Like many four year-olds, my daughter has an unconventional style when choosing what to wear. Recently, she appeared from her room in an outfit that even I could tell violated a whole range of aesthetic norms. Caught between not wanting to sound critical and not wanting to lie, I told her she looked flamboyant, which came out sounding as though I thought she was in danger of catching fire but was unlikely to sink (possibly accurate given what she was wearing). It seems that “flamboyant” is based on the French for “flaming” but how did it gain its English meaning? — Rhys Fogarty.
That’s a great question. I must say that you seem to have a natural talent for diplomacy; I’d never have come up with “flamboyant” in that situation. When faced with other people’s unconventional fashion choices, the best I can usually offer is something like “Well, if you’re swept overboard, you’ll be easy to find.” Incidentally, it’s amazing what people are willing to wear on TV. I saw a real estate agent on House Hunters International the other night whose apparent love for the color orange had made her look like an enormous traffic cone. Then again, I should talk. I appeared on TV many years ago in a tweed jacket that, under the lights, turned out to fluoresce in shades of orange and purple. I looked like a talking migraine.
I’m very glad you asked about “flamboyant.” Like you, I was vaguely aware that it was connected to the French “flambe” (flame), but I imagined that “flamboyant” (meaning “characterized by elaborate or colorful design” or “wildly expressive”) was simply a highly figurative reference to flames or something being on fire in some dramatic fashion. The actual story is both more concrete and more interesting.
Our English “flamboyant” is actually simply the French word “flamboyant,” the participle form of “flamboyer,” meaning “to flame.” The root of that “flamboyer” is “flambe,” and the root of that is the Latin “flamma,” meaning “flame or fire.” So “flamboyant” should simply mean “flaming” or “blazing,” but it doesn’t.
The reason is that the initial use of “flamboyant” when it first appeared in English in the 1830s was as the name of a particular Gothic architectural style that was common in France in the 15th and 16th centuries. This style, particularly evident in cathedrals and large churches of the period (especially their windows and spires), featured ornate curved or wavy lines in a shape reminiscent of flames, as well as lengthened arches and windows. Compared to the more sedate styles which had been the norm, this “flamboyant” architecture was considered by many later critics to be a bit “over the top” and florid, which led to “flamboyant” being quickly pressed into service later in the 19th century as a general adjective for anything deemed “overly elaborate” or ostentatiously showy (“That flamboyant penmanship admired by our ancestors,” 1879).
During the same period “flamboyant” was also used in a sense more in keeping with its Latin roots to describe something flamingly or otherwise brightly colored (“Whose daughters, in flamboyant ribbons, were among the belles of the parish,” 1867). “Flamboyant” today is often used in a broader sense to mean “ostentatious” or “audacious” in both good (“London bade a flamboyant and madcap farewell to the Olympic Games,” Reuters, 8/13/12) and bad senses (“[F]our brothers from rural Texas who, in the 1920s, became America’s most successful, flamboyant and notorious bank robbers,” Wall St. Journal, 7/27/12).