Go to the end for a trick to help you remember when to use "flout."
Last week, a reader named Brad wrote to me and said,
"Recently, I've been seeing lots of "flaunt" in place of "flout" (as in, disobeying rules to shelter-in-place, etc.), so I naturally thought of Grammar Girl. Then I turned to Merriam-Webster, and discovered that one of ‘flaunt’'s connotations is indeed "to treat contemptuously [as in someone] flaunted the rules.'
Apparently, so many folks were using ‘flaunt’ in place of ‘flout’ that...well, you know how it goes. Maybe it’s a good time to revisit the difference?”
Let’s start with the basics: “Flaunt” and “flout” sound a lot alike, but they don’t mean the same thing.
What does ‘flaunt’ mean?
Traditionally, when you flaunt yourself, flaunt your wealth, or flaunt your accomplishments, you’re parading them in front of people—you’re showing off.
What does ‘flout’ mean?
“Flout” means “to disregard, scoff at, mock, or show scorn.” If you’re having a big party when your state or country has a shelter-in-place order, you’re flouting the rules. You’re flouting authority.
Can ‘flaunt’ mean ‘flout’?
As Brad noted, so many people have started using the word “flaunt” to mean “flout” that dictionaries have added “to treat the rules with contempt” as an additional definition of “flaunt.” That’s how words and meanings get in the dictionary. But that doesn’t mean you should use it.
Dictionaries don’t say whether definitions are right or wrong, they just record how people use words. And today, most professional writers and editors would still consider it an error to use “flaunt” to mean “disregard the rules.” I’d definitely change it or mark it if I were editing a article or grading a paper.
Garner’s Modern English Usage uses a phrase that I’ve always liked: “careful writers.” Garner says “careful writers” still avoid using “flaunt” to mean “flout.”
Some sources would say “educated writers,” but I like “careful writers” better. You don’t have to be educated to be careful or to care about using precise words.
The origin of ‘flaunt’
The origins of these words are where it gets interesting.
Nobody knows for sure where we got “flaunt” for example, and I’m always surprised when I come across an unknown origin. How could we just not know? People research this stuff.
There are theories, of course. The one I like is that it comes from a Swedish dialect word “flankt” that means “loosely fluttering.” I like the visual image of fluttering your accomplishments in front of people, but the Oxford English Dictionary says the timing of the word entering English makes that origin unlikely. We really just don’t know.
The origin of ‘flout’
“Flout” is even more fun and weird. Dictionaries say it’s related to the word “flute”—like the instrument, but nobody is really sure why that is either. What would disregarding laws have to do with playing the flute. I triple checked just to be sure I was reading everything right.
One theory is that the sound of playing the flute might sound a bit like jeering or derisive whistling. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary says that the Dutch word “fluiten” means both to play the flute and to mock or deride something or someone.
What is a ‘shame flute’ or ‘Schandeflote’?
Then I came across a tidbit on Wikipedia about bad musicians being forced to wear a “flute of shame,” and I thought someone was just making things up. I mean, really…the flute of shame?
But I found things about it in a bunch of books in Google Books too, and it’s often associated with Germany in the Middle Ages where it was called the “Schandflote.”
For example, a 1992 book called “Crime and Punishments,” which I think was part of a Time Life series called the “Library of Unusual and Curious Facts,” said “A shame flute dangling from a German musician’s neck mocked his professional abilities.” Apparently, it wasn’t a real flute—it just looked like a flute—and it somehow locked the musicians fingers in a forced playing position. The travel guide “Frommers Europe” from 2002 said you could see one on display in the Medieval Crime Museum in Germany.
The first citation in the OED for “flout” meaning “to jeer or express contempt for something” is from 1551, and from what I can gather, the shame flute was used to mock musicians around the same time. There are references to a musicians guild in Nuremberg that existed around the same time called the Meistersingers using the shame flute.
I’ve never seen anyone make the connection saying the shame flute is the reason the word “flout” comes from the word “flute,” but it seems like a good theory, or at least a fun theory, because we got to learn about the shame flute!
Quick and Dirty Tip
Getting back to the original question, you should still use “flaunt” to talk about showing off and “flout” to talk about disregarding rules, and neither of them are a good thing. Don’t be a flaunter, and don’t be a flouter.
Remember that you flout laws by linking the 'out' in 'flout' with the idea of being an outlaw or being outside society.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.