As a father of two young girls, author Chris Power has watched "The Sound of Music" enough to start wondering about the origins of the word "flibbertigibbet"—as in, "How do you find the word that means Maria?/A flibbertigibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! A clown."
As the father of two young daughters, I’m currently watching more musicals than at any other point in my life. Alongside relatively new ones like "Frozen," I’ve been introducing them to some of what I watched in my childhood, things like "Mary Poppins" and "Annie." But their pick of the older crop is undoubtedly "The Sound of Music." Now our house is filled with ‘Do-Re-Mi’, ‘So Long, Farewell’, and regular queries about just how we might solve a problem like Maria.
It’s that last one I want to talk about here. At the start of the film Maria is a nun, the worst in the convent, and the song is an argument between two nuns who think she’s irresponsible (“A will-o’-the-wisp!” “A clown!”), and two who think she’s just irrepressible (“How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?”).
Every time I hear the song there’s one word I can’t stop turning over in my mind. It’s one of the words the angry nuns use: flibbertigibbet. Can you read it without wanting to say it out loud? It’s such a fun word to get your mouth around, a silly word, which makes sense because it describes a silly person—usually someone who can’t shut up, and doesn’t say anything worthwhile. There’s a good argument to be made, in fact, that the word is onomatopoeic—that is, the sound of it emulates the sound of what it describes, which in this case is meaningless chatter.
But there’s something in the word I find disturbing, too. I think it must be the ‘gibbet’ that it ends in. A gibbet is another word for a gallows, an upright post with an arm from which criminals could be hanged using a noose, or, in medieval Europe, displayed in cages after their execution: a kind of pre-modern anti-crime highway billboard.
Digging a little deeper into the origin of ‘flibbertigibbet’ I don’t find any explicit link to the gallows, but I do discover that it’s the name of one of the demons that possesses Poor Tom in Shakespeare’s "King Lear" (first performed in December 1606). As it turns out, Shakespeare got the name Flibbertigibbet from a contemporary work, Samuel Harsnett’s snappily titled "A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures" (1603). Harsnett was an Anglican archdeacon who was skeptical about the existence of demons, and his text was an inquiry into a number of public exorcisms performed by Catholic priests in Buckinghamshire, England, in the 1580s. Flibbertigibbet was one of four demons reportedly cast out of one poor woman. The others were Frateretto, Hoberdidance (who also makes it into "King Lear" as ‘Hibbididence’), and Tocobatto.
Over time the word’s darker associations have fallen away, with evil being replaced by silliness. Now, when one of the angry nuns calls Maria a flibbertigibbet, they aren’t calling her anything infernal, and when my daughters and I feel moved to sing scraps of the song as we go about our day, we can do so safe in the knowledge that we’re not opening a door to any unwelcome guests; we’re just being flibbertigibbets.