One feature of this blog will be my occasional rants about the abuse of the English language. I hope to make my posts as informative and light-hearted as possible, but if you find yourself getting defensive about your own English usage, perhaps it’s for the best.
Today’s rant is about the frequency with which I have noticed people confusing the words flaunt and flout. Last year, a regular columnist with the Jerusalem Post used the expression “to flaunt the Torah,” meaning to mock it, to spit in its face. Dov Bear has a post on his blog where he similarly confuses the two words: “Unless Mr. Rosenblum is saying that the ban is likely to fail, and that he expects all of Haredi society to be openly flaunting it within two generations, he should not say…”
Flout means “to show contempt for; scoff at; scorn” (American Heritage Dictionary), “to mock or insult; to treat with contempt” (Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition), and, for the snobs who believe the Oxford English Dictionary to be the only true authority on the English language,
1. trans. To mock, jeer, insult; to express contempt for, either in word or action.
2. intrans. To behave with disdain or contumely, to mock, jeer, scoff; to express contempt either by action or speech.
3. ? erroneous use (or ? another word). To ruffle (a bird’s feathers).
Here is the definition of flaunt:
1. To wave or flutter showily
2. To move ostentatiously; to make a showy appearance; to be boastfully gaudy; …transitive: To display ostentatiously; to make an impudent show of; to parade; as, to flaunt one’s vices. (Webster)
…and, again, for the snooty, the OED’s definition:
1. intr. Of plumes, banners, etc.: To wave gaily or proudly. Of plants: To wave to as to display their beauty.
2. a. Of persons: To walk or move about so as to display one’s finery; to display oneself in unbecomingly splendid or gaudy attire; to obtrude oneself boastfully, impudently, or defiantly on the public view. b. Of things: To be extravagantly gaudy or glaringly conspicuous in appearance.
3. trans. To display ostentatiously or obstrusively; to flourish, parade, show off.
These definitions should, I think, make clear that we are dealing with two distinct meanings, however similar the spellings of the words. One flaunts a diamond; one flouts a lover’s feelings by pawning that diamond, taking the cash, and taking off on a two-week holiday with someone else. One flaunts one’s flawless lulav and etrog at Sukkot; one flouts the Torah by tying them with twine to the grille of one’s automobile and going joyriding on Yom Tov.
In defense of the malapropists, the American Heritage Dictionary offers a second, “nonstandard” definition which acknowledges the use of flaunt to mean flout:
2. Nonstandard. To flout: “Our English tradition of capitalizing all name-derivatives is so firmly established…that it seems a futile gesture to flaunt it” (Robert A. Hall, Jr.)
There is also a note regarding this confusion:
Usage: Flaunt in the sense of flout (to show contempt or conspicuous disregard for) is rejected by 91 per cent of the Usage Panel. A dissenting member of the Panel observes that it “is in too general usage to be ignored.” However, although its appearance in print since the 1930s (especially in the United States) is widely attested, flaunt in this sense remains a malapropism in the judgment of most writers and editors.
Thus, if one is truly insistent on misusing the word flaunt, one can always point to the defeated observation of a lonely surrender-monkey on the American Heritage Usage Panel.
To my great relief, Wolfish Musings refreshingly uses the expression “flaunt the Torah” correctly in the following passage: “The point is that everyone has a calling… and while fulfilling your calling, do it in the most humble way possible. If you’re a talmid chochom, don’t flaunt your Torah knowledge for personal aggrandizement. If you’re a businessman, don’t brag about your latest deal — recognize that Hashem had a part in helping you with your success.”
If one has been unwittingly misusing these words, speaker, correct thyself. If one has been willfully flaunting one’s ignorance by flouting the basic laws of diction, well, I have nothing more to say. My feathers have been flouted enough.