Saturday, January 23, 2010

foundering or floundering?

This post was at the outset borrowed ignorance. Friend, fellow blogger and perhaps most relevantly here, copy editor Peter Rozovsky asked if I might want to post about the common confusion of the words "foundering" and "floundering". At first, fairly confident that I knew the difference, I felt disinclined. But for me, anyway, the more I think about words, the less I feel entitled to say categorically that I know what they are all about. Questions begin to arise. And so with these.

Here is my initial impression of the meaning of the two words. "Foundering" is to sink like a boat in a shallow harbor, getting stuck in the mud. You come to a halt, a stuck place when you founder. "Floundering" is to be in a state of confusion, but the opposite of a stuck state--it's more of a state of casting about wildly. Or that's my impression.

Well, we'll see how close I am. But in the meantime, a couple of instances of my own ignorance have come to the fore. I had always thought that floundering meant "to behave like a flounder", as on a ship's deck or other dry land just before the end. According to Peter, this is not the case. So what is the case? I can't even make a
guess at the original meaning. I am wondering, though, if there is any connection between flail and flounder. Just because of their opening sounds.

And foundered--what is it's connection to all the other "found" words--found, founded, foundry?

I'm floundering here, but I'm not foundered yet. Let's get to the bottom of this...

Whoo, boy--getting to the bottom of all this may indeed be cause for foundering. And foundering does mean "to sink or fall to the bottom", by the way. It goes back to the Latin fundare, which stems from the Latin fundus, or bottom. So it's related to words like "Founders"--as in our nations's--and foundation.

But foundry? No. Just when I thought it was all smooth sailing, I discover that "foundry" traces its lineage back to quite a different, though still Latin, root. Blink and you'll miss it, but this one is fundere which means "to melt or cast", as in metal. Makes sense for a foundry, I guess. And this doesn't even get into another "found", past tense of "find". Yep, completely different source. (Middle English for the curious.)

You may not be surprised that the etymologists have been floundering around a bit in their quest for the source of "flounder". The American Heritage Dictionary has it that "flounder" is probably a variation on the word--you guessed it--"founder". Your Dictionary has it as perhaps blending "founder" with "blunder". But the Century Dictionary has it related to "flounce" and being a perhaps "nasalized" form of the Dutch flodderen, which can mean either to splash through the mire (flodder), or to dangle, flap or wave, which in turn relates "flounder" to both "flatter" and "flutter".

Got that? That's a flippin' lot of "fl--" words, is all I can say.


  1. My god, what have I started?
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  2. I don't know that you have ever made a longer post on this blog. But then, you always sail boldly into the teeth of uncertainty. I have great confidence that even if you flounder from time to time, you will never founder.

    My v-word expresses the action I might take if I have second thoughts about the repairs I just made to my bath tub: ungrout
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  3. Well, it's a two word post, really. Or maybe three.

    As to ungrout, don't do it.