Flout or flaunt? Word confusion

One of the most common mistakes I found as a sub-editor was around the confusion of the use of the words flaunt and flout. The result was often hilarious.

It seems it is an age-old problem common to the news reporting discipline and these partners in language crime have an interesting history. You may want to say the wanton woman flouted her breasts as she walked along the busy street.

This would make no sense as it would be extremely difficult for the woman to disregard her bosom.

Of course, it would be correct to say she flaunted her breasts.

The confusion, experts say, both come from the way the words are said and the negative and forceful qualities they both have.

Flaunt means to lavishly display, while flout means to unashamedly disregard.

Going back in time we learn according to The Word Detective “‘Flaunt’ first appeared in the 16th century, from unknown origins, and means “to display ostentatiously” (as in “Flaunting one’s wealth”). “Flout” appeared roughly at the same time, possibly drawn from the Middle English “flouten” (literally “to play the flute,” which was used idiomatically to mean “to mock or jeer”). Today “flout” means “to treat with contemptuous disregard,” as in “Senators often flout the ethics rules.”

Confusion

Usage confusion began, The Word Detective says, particularly in print in the early 20th century, and “it’s been driving usage mavens bonkers ever since. But it’s an understandable error, since both words depict obnoxiously arrogant public behaviour, they strongly resemble each other in both form and sound, and there is even a chance that “flout” and “flaunt” may have been the same word at one time.

The Oxford Dictionary after delving into research learnt that more than 5% of the total examples of “flaunt” are incorrect – that is, people are using “flaunt”, when they mean “flout”. The most common error is “flaunt the law” followed by “flaunt the rules”.

Commonly used incorrectly are phrases such as these:  Too often these days teenage rebels think that they can flaunt the law with impunity.

Police … will be sending warning letters to those who flaunt the new rules.

Research

The Oxford Dictionary adds that “These errors occur mainly in news reporting across the world, from the UK to North America, Australasia, and East Asia. As journalists’ writing is checked before publication, the high percentage of these errors shows that even professional writers and editors (who should know better!) are prone to this confusion.

The Oxford English Dictionary reveals that people have been mixing up these words since at least 1923, when the OED records this example: He achieved strong local popularity, a priceless asset to a man who lives by flaunting the law.

No-cry zones with sunions: How words are formed

Zeitgeist: how words originate

Take care with English: How expressions get distorted

 

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