English, in its superabundance, has many multiples of words and phrases that overlap contentiously in meaning. These confusables are the bread and butter of usage manuals: imply and infer, disinterested and uninterested, careen and career, defuse and diffuse, convince and persuade, militate and mitigate, refute and reject, and flaunt and flout.
Some of these pairs are worth distinguishing; others are not. Part of editing well – and writing well – is knowing which distinctions to preserve and which to disregard. Examining over versus more than, John E. McIntyre refers to dog-whistle editing: ‘the observance of nuances that only copy editors can hear, and thus a waste of time’.
Knowing the difference between flaunt and flout is not, for now, a waste of time. But the prospects are not promising. In a post at Language Log yesterday, Geoffrey Pullum says it ‘may be a lost cause’ – a gloomy diagnosis prompted by a BBC Radio 4 report that referred to politicians who were ‘supposed to impose party discipline, rather than flaunt it’. It should have been flout.
To recap: flaunt means to show off or display ostentatiously. One flaunts wealth or fancy clothes. Flout means to brazenly disobey or disregard. One flouts the law by openly ignoring it. The two are often confused: partly, we can assume, because they’re spelled similarly. Usually flaunt is mistakenly used for flout rather than the other way around – though that happens too. (Curiously, both verbs are of uncertain origin.)
At Macmillan Dictionary Blog in 2011, I offered mnemonics for remembering which is which. I’ll repeat them here: Notice the aunt in flaunt and picture your aunt behaving ostentatiously. And notice the lout in flout and picture a drunken lout flouting public order. Impress these images forcefully on your mind, and you’re unlikely ever to confuse the words.
Confusing flaunt and flout is, unfortunately, what many people are doing – even copy editors and proofreaders. Without going looking for the error, I came across it in two books I read last year. Mary Flanagan’s short story ‘Fluff’, in her collection The Blue Woman (Abacus, 1995) has stowaways ‘flaunting international law’:
While Temple Grandin’s memoir Emergence: Labeled Autistic, co-written with Margaret M. Scariano (Grand Central Publishing, 1996), has the narrator ‘flaunting the rules’:
Search Google Books for phrases like flaunting the rules, flaunted the regulations, flouted/-ing their wealth, and you’ll find many writers – and editors and proofreaders – neglecting to uphold the traditional distinction. But not enough of them, I believe, to argue for the usage’s formal legitimacy. Collins and M-W dictionaries include ‘flout’ under flaunt’s marginal senses but note the widespread objection to it. In a 2009 survey, 73% of the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel rejected it.
Other usage authorities also reject the words’ interchangeability. Kenneth Wilson, in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, notes that the pair is ‘causing increasing trouble’, that ‘the openness and arrogance of both flaunting and flouting have probably contributed to the confusion’, but that edited English still insists on their being distinguished.
Garner’s Modern English Usage concurs, adding that flaunt is often used incorrectly ‘perhaps because it is misunderstood as a telescoped version of flout and taunt’. Garner places the error in Stage 3 of his language-change index, meaning it is common ‘even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage’. That’s about the size of it.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage dates the first recorded example of the error to 1918 and says it became especially frequent from the 1940s. It points out that flaunt and flout are both used ‘to describe open, unashamed behavior’, both ‘typically suggest disapproval of such behavior’, and they are used so similarly that they ‘go together easily in a single sentence’: a recipe for confusion.
If even copy editors and Radio 4 broadcasters are confused, or at any rate overlooking the difference, this lends support to Pullum’s view that the battle is being lost. But I don’t conclude quite yet that ‘the towel has been thrown in, game over’. I’ll continue to observe and apply the distinction, because it is a useful one, and I recommend that you do the same.