Don’t flout this distinction – flaunt it

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’:

mary-flanagan-fluff-blue-woman-flout-flaunt

While Temple Grandin’s memoir Emergence: Labeled Autistic, co-written with Margaret M. Scariano (Grand Central Publishing, 1996), has the narrator ‘flaunting the rules’:

temple-grandin-emergence-flout-flaunt-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.

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21 Responses to Don’t flout this distinction – flaunt it

  1. bevrowe says:

    What always worry me about the maintenance of weakened usages are the undertones of snobbery and showing off emanating from those who want to maintain the usage. Why can’t we take a more pragmatic view and say “Oh well, that language tool is faulty, let’s abandon it.” Let’s give up the sneaky pleasure of flouting our knowledge of the rules when other people flaunt them.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That can sometimes be the case, but I don’t think I’m showing off or being a snob in upholding the distinction, especially in formal contexts. Nor do I derive any ‘sneaky pleasure’ from it. I think no less of people who use flaunt to mean ‘flout’; I just think, ‘Oh, they don’t make that distinction.’ But when I see it in edited prose, I think, ‘They would probably find it professionally beneficial to observe it.’ The last paragraph of my post about refute may be relevant here, as is this longer discussion about reconciling descriptivism with editing.

  2. astraya says:

    I think the distinction is worth observing, but I can’t recall encountering it as an editor, I can’t be bothered stopping to analyse it as a reader, and I would probably never use it as a writer.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’ve used both as a writer, and encountered both as an editor, but not especially often. As a reader I tend to notice them only really when they’re used in the nonstandard way.

  3. Roger says:

    You can play some pairs off in the same sentence: turbid/turgid
    A river in flood can be both.

  4. Pauntley Roope says:

    There’s a strange triangulation with the verb ‘to flounce’, which can express the manner in which one might flaunt one’s disregard for – one’s flouting – of social conventions. Possibly contributing to the confusion.

  5. Gerry Foley says:

    Could I ask about another distinction that might be in the process of being lost, i.e. abdicate versus abrogate? Very often people refer to someone abrogating their responsibilities, rather than abdicating them (here in Australia, anyway). Perhaps they’re under the impression that abdication is reserved for monarchs. I was wondering whether this usage has been noticed elsewhere.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I don’t recall having seen those words mixed up, Gerry. That could be down to geography or to the particular types of texts we read. What I have seen is abrogate confused with arrogate. The Columbia Guide… defines all three verbs in one entry, but doesn’t comment on their usage, mis- or otherwise.

      • Gerry Foley says:

        I did a bit of online research in more up-to-date dictionaries than the ones on my book shelf, and was surprised to find that abrogate in the sense of abdicate (as in abrogate one’s responsibilities) is given as a second meaning in many of them – e.g. Merriam-Webster and Oxford. A google search on “abdicated their responsibilities” versus “abrogated their responsibilities” came up with 31,000 versus 6,610. So there’s a fair bit of abrogation going on.

        • Stan Carey says:

          So it is. The OED entry for abrogate has a secondary sense meaning ‘To evade, neglect, or renounce (an obligation or duty); to shirk (a responsibility)’, and dates this usage to 1904. So I think it’s best considered a variant and not a mistake.

  6. You may well be inclined to flout
    If there are rules you’d do without
    And would-be captors you might taunt
    But only if you’ve wings to flaunt

  7. Catbar UK says:

    Quote: “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.”

    Remember the Flashy Aunt and the Filthy Lout.

  8. I’m reminded of the Shakespearean “fleering” (sneering, jeering) — I somehow feel that if this were still in common use, we’d have a more functional continuum of derisive “fl” words, and flouting and flaunting would be less often mixed up.

  9. astraya says:

    Which of the following statements is/are acceptable?
    1) The people who know and care about the distinction between these two words, observe it.
    2) The people who observe the distinction between these two words, know and care about it.
    3) The people who don’t know and care about the distinction between these two words, don’t observe it.
    4) The people who don’t observe the distinction between these two words, don’t know and care about it.

    (cf Henry Fowler re split infinitives)

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