Thursday, September 4, 2014

High falutin'

I used the term high falutin' the other day, and of course that led me to think about where it comes from. I think of high falutin' as being fancy, perhaps overly so, or giving oneself airs that one shouldn't. But what, I wondered, is falutin'?


It turns out that this is one of those slang terms that sprang up somehow without anyone really bothering to record it. It was first recorded in usage in 1839. People do like to guess about it, though. Witness Merriam-Webster online:

"perhaps from 2high + alteration of fluting, present participle of flute"

Or perhaps not.

If you head over to Word Detective, you will find the author acknowledging that no one knows but that there are two possible sources, either possibly true. He (or she) mentions the flute possibility but then says that others suggest high flying or high flown. It's worth continuing on into the comments thread there, as it illustrates with some humor that where meanings aren't known, they will be invented. You will find there the mention of the fluting on Mississippi steamboats, the way pretentious flautists hold up their arms, fluting on blouses, armor and much, much more.

"Zbroja 1514" by Unknown - Own work User:Mathiasrex Maciej SzczepaƄczyk

But after scrolling through such comments, we need a bit of etymologist Anatoly Liberman to bring us back to earth. Hence I direct you to his article "Low-Key Thoughts on Highfalutin'". It's worth reading for the way he untangles things and reasons them out. He holds back his "one feeble idea" till the end and I won't ruin it for him. But I'll give you a hint.

Think Yiddish.


  1. Love this! Also loved the Liberman article, which ties into my current obsession with The Language Archive, down to the Yiddish and the Dutch!

  2. Wow, that's great. I wish I could see your production.

  3. Think Yiddish, she says!

    I agree that the Yiddish hypothesis for high-falutin' is unconvincing, though I was pleased to see fonfer in print.

  4. Yes, I thought you would be well qualified to weigh in on this one, Peter.

    As for me, I can only say that I'm glad high falutin' exists, whatever its origin.

  5. I'm happy to have any kind of falutin', high or low.

  6. I suppose I might be, if I had any idea what it was.

  7. Replies
    1. Peter, I shall check it out. We had some records of Bob and Ray so I'll have to see if anything rings a bell.

  8. Thanks for Liberman and your thoughts on this. I was just muttering about working at an event with the highfalutin and hoity-toity types yesterday. Today I actually said "young whippersnappers". Maybe I should dress up with bustle and parasol. Also, I think I may need to watch the DVD of "Music Man" again.

    1. Nancy, I was at a Greek Festival last night, and there was an older woman dressed in green and violet who was dancing around in a graceful but restrained way. Then she brought out her purple parasol and it was all over. People came out of nowhere and joined in a folk dance line, kids were running around and it was all happening. Later on she told me that she couldn't move fast anymore, but she could move the parasol pretty fast. She calls it 'umbrelly dancing". So yeah, get out that parasol. You'll be doing the world a favor.