Floozy

First stone cast, film at 11.

Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering about the origin of the word “floozy” to describe what used to be known, in more quaint times, as a “loose woman.” — Lynda.

Ah yes, the more quaint times. As Grampa Simpson put it, “Like the time I caught the ferry to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for m’shoe. So I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt. Which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on ‘em. Gimme five bees for a quarter, you’d say.” If that ain’t quaint, I’ll be a badger’s dentist, as we used to say. Back then.

“Quaint” is actually a strange word. (Offstage: Would you like to talk about it?) OK, well, “quaint” comes from the Anglo-Norman “cointe” (clever, crafty, proud, elegant) and ultimately, way back, from the Latin “cognitus” (clever, wise). In English, “quaint” originally meant “cunning, crafty, elegant or finely made,” but by the 14th century we were using it to mean “strange or unusual,” which became our modern “quaint” meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “attractively or agreeably unusual in character or appearance … pleasingly old-fashioned.”

“Floozy” is a word with a history, as one might expect. For one thing, it has had a number of spellings and forms (including floozie, floosie, floosy, and floogy, among others) since it first appeared in the early 20th century. For another, the meaning of “floozy” has changed a bit over the years.

The source of “floozy” is, surprisingly, almost certainly the adjective “flossy,” which is based on “floss.” “Floss” is the fine filaments that surround the cocoon of the silk worm, as well as, by extension, anything made (or appearing to be made) of fine, glossy filaments or fibers. (What we in the US call “cotton candy,” for instance, is known as “candy floss” in the UK.) In the mid-19th century, “flossy,” originally meaning simply “floss-like,” acquired two figurative meanings: “fancy or showy” (i.e., tricked out in glossy and fashionable finery) and “saucy or impertinent” (carrying that “fashionable” into “brash” and “gaudy” territory).

In the early 20th century US, “floozie,” a colloquial form of “flossy,” was most often used in the first sense of “elegant, attractive,” especially with reference to young women, but by mid-century the “saucy” element had come to the fore and a “floozy” in popular parlance was a wild and disreputable “party girl,” if not actually a prostitute (“He bought a red racy car and went skidding around … with every floozy in town; the only nice girls you ever saw in that car were his sisters.” Truman Capote, 1951).

Such derogatory devolution of terms applied to women is sadly common in English. The epithet “hussy,” for instance, is derived from the honorable “housewife.” On the bright side (I guess), “floozie” is such an antiquated term that it is almost always used in a joking sense today.

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