Friday, April 29, 2011

Somebody Will Have It

Celebrating dictionaries. When you’re highfalutin, what exactly are you? My Online Etymology Dictionary failed me, for once, and in such a bind I am reminded that I am rich. Rich, that is, in all kind of dictionaries, the kind that live on shelves. Our oldest Webster’s (1920) has the word and says that it is, perhaps (their word) a corruption of high-flying—hence other dictionaries suggests that rendering it as highfalutin’ with a hyphen is correct by way of indicating the missin’ g. Our equally thick and also unabridged 1961 Webster’s suggests an origin, also qualifying it with a “perhaps,” having to do with a flute, not the kind you blow on to make music but the kind known in architecture as a “furrow in a pillar.” Those furrows were up there, as it were. This entry qualifies its ignorance by quoting several big names using it, not least Mencken and T.S. Eliot. Our Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, by Quality Paperback Books and edited by Robert Hendrickson, flunks. No highfalutin. Our Dictionary of American Slang, perhaps because it is about slang, produces the most scholarly etymology, dating the word to 1848+ (their +). They continue: “origin unknown; originally a gerund, seemingly based on a verb high falute, suggesting a humorous alteration of flute; perhaps fr a blend of highflown with some other element; perhaps fr Dutch verlooten, ‘stilted’.” The neatest etymology comes from the Web, the Wictionary. It says the following: “In his book, The Adventure of English, Melvyn Bragg records that in a nascent America, when the well-to-do travelled by steamboat, said passengers were referred to as highfalutin due to the high fluted funnels on the boats.” Just to make sure, I quickly checked if lowfalutin is around. By golly, it is. It’s being used by all sorts of people to assert that they’re just ordinary people and lovable for that reason alone, one supposes. I hope that the Websters of the world are capturing these web assertions so that someday, when it will have become highfalutin to be lowfalutin, the dictionaries will know who used this new word for the first time.


  1. I like the Dutch origin theory from "verlooten"... I always prefer this type of explanation.
    So - Dutch: points to New York and the Hudson Valley and Washington Irving, perhaps...

    The flutes on pillars is also good. I see many high falutin' pillars on front porches on houses in SE Michigan, from West Bloomfield to Mt. Clemens, and every one seems out of place.

    However, a lot of medical doctors seem to be the owners of these houses, so perhaps we are on the right track here.

  2. What a fun exploration, even for a lowfalutin gal like me!

    I am going to start using that word. Love it.

  3. I loved this! I quickly looked up to falute, just in case. It does not exist of course!


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