If You Got It, Flaunt It (But Better Not Flout Convention) / 9 ноября 2007 г.

William Safire on language

“Oscar wilde was jailed, exiled and ruined,” wrote John Lahr in The New Yorker, in a piece about Woody Allen, “for flaunting sexual convention offstage as brazenly as his epigrams undermined social convention on it.”

That’s a finely honed sentence, contrasting differing conventions by stressing the adjectives social and sexual and playing the syllable off against the concluding stressed word on. Even the de-emphasized last pronoun it was well chosen, because its alternative — onstage — would have made the sentence too determinedly balanced. Only one problem: flaunting was a mistake.

To flaunt means “to display proudly, even ostentatiously,” the way a peacock shows its feathers; indeed, an early use of the word in 1576 was set in the phrase “whose fethers flaunt, and flicker in the winde.”

The word that fit the context of The New Yorker’s piece on Allen was flout, which means “to jeer, deride, scoff at, show contemptuous disregard for,” first cited in a 1551 translation of Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia”: “in moste spitefull maner mockynge . . . and flowtinge them.”

The substitution of flaunt for flout, a mistake made frequently enough, irritated Ann Kirschner of Brooklyn. “The New Yorker used to be a bulwark of elegant, not to mention correct, usage,” she wrote the magazine. “Then, little by little, cracks began to appear in that edifice. With the substitution of the word flaunting for flouting . . . the destruction is now complete.”

That somewhat hyperbolic denunciation drew a cool reply from a copy editor (whose name is safe with me; ever since I blithely titled a piece “Let’s Kill All the Copy Editors,” I’ve been worried that some nut would take it seriously). “Our use of flaunt is correct,” insisted The New Yorker. “According to Webster’s Tenth New Collegiate Dictionary, flaunt may mean ‘to treat contemptuously,’ which is the meaning we had in mind. The accompanying usage note points out that, although this use of flaunt undoubtedly arose from confusion with flout, the contexts in which it appears cannot be called substandard.”

Kirschner took that to be a throwing-down of a gauntlet. (Or, as they might now say at The New Yorker, of a gantlet.) What do readers do when good usage gives way to common usage — when error triumphs, dictionaries drop the standard, things fall apart and the center cannot hold? They come — in high dudgeon, puzzlement, sometimes whimpering in pain — slouching to language mavens for support or solace.

Ann, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. R. W. Burchfield in the latest Fowler’s Modern English Usage says flatly that “flaunt is often wrongly used for flout.” And in that very usage note cited to you by The New Yorker, Merriam-Webster goes on to say, “If you use it, however, you should be aware that many people will consider it a mistake.”

That warning label is expounded fully by E. Ward Gilman in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “This is one issue about which there is no dissent among usage commentators. All of them regard the use of flaunt to mean flout as nothing less than an ignorant mistake. . . . Even those commentators who are relatively liberal in other matters take a hard line when it comes to flaunt and flout.”

The mistake is undoubtedly alive and well, made every day, but even Gilman — a superb historical usagist often derided in this space as Old Roundheels — opines that “we think you well advised to avoid it, at least when writing for publication.”

What, then, is The New Yorker — in whose pages some of our best authors write for publication — to do? Brazen it through? Ignore the whole thing, secretly placing both flout and flaunt on the magazine’s taboo list? Turn upon and savage its own copy-editing department, causing much internal anguish at a management that won’t stand up to fuddy-duddy grammarians and semantic stiffs?

I empathize with Tina Brown, the top New Yorker editor, in a case like this. Recently, I referred to Oliver Cromwell as “the Pretender.” As the swarming Gotcha! Gang promptly pointed out, Cromwell was “the Protector”; it was the son of James II, claiming the British throne against the house of Hanover, who was known as the Pretender (and his son — Bonnie Prince Charlie — was known as the Young Pretender). I have been waiting for a moment like this, dealing with another subject, to sneak in a correction that few will notice. It’s hard to admit factual error, even harder to lay your head on the block — recalling the treatment of Charles I by supporters of the Protector — and confess to misjudgment of English usage. The justification of error is not limited to political figures.

When does the frequency of error reach critical mass and transform the mistake into a “new sense”?

Should we, for example, preserve the distinction between gantlet, “a punishment run,” and gauntlet, “a heavy glove sometimes thrown down in challenge”? Do only pedants insist on masterly to mean “skillful” while masterful means “domineering”? Is it worth breaking our heads to remember continuous as “incessant, uninterrupted” while continual is “repeated with brief intermissions”? Where is it written that refute, “to disprove by argument,” must never be used as a synonym for deny in its sense of “to declare untrue”?

Right here is where it’s written, in the animadversive annals of the defenders of distinctions. We prescriptivists are aware that semantic shift is a signal called by the living language; we lie on Jespersen’s couch of metanalysis as a napron becomes an apron through repeated error over the centuries. But we ask, Why should the slurring of sharp lines of definition take place on our watch? A stalactite won’t become a stalagmite in our time, no matter how lost we get in the Luray Caverns.

Fearlessly do we flaunt our gauntlets before flinging them down in challenge to the louts of flout. They may be in denial, but we’re in refutation.

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