Bill Long 2/9/06
Not What you Think
English is a rich language that we have impoverished. We have impoverished it because we abandon usages of words that flourished for centuries and reduce the richness of the word to one signfication. When we let the word "breathe," however, we discover long-lost treasures that invite our closest scrutiny. The word "flirt," which this essay will discuss, is a case in point.
The Issue with Flirting
Everyone knows that to flirt is to "behave amorously without serious intent" (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate) or to "show superficial interest in" or "experiment" (i.e., he flirted with danger; she flirted with the idea of writing poetry). And, we know that flirt is also a person who acts this way. The noun use of "flirt" in this way originally had a sexist connotation--as you might imagine. It referred to a "woman of a giddy, flighty character" or, in Johnson's words, "a pert young hussey." If you are looking for language of insult, you can sometimes do no better than consult Burton's famous and impenetrable 17th century monstrosity, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Apropos our word he said, "A peevish drunken flurt, a waspish cholerick slut." It was only in the 18th century and the birth of the modern novel that flirt was used of both women and men in the way we customarily employ it today. From 1732: "A flirt, One who gives himself all the airs of making love in public." And, from Richardson's Clarissa (1748): "She was not one of those flirts..who would give pain to a person who deserved to be well-treated."
Thus, there is no difficulty in affirming the modern use of flirt as a noun or verb. It is attested. It has a clear meaning. It is used all the time by loads of people. But I ran across an earlier meaning of the term when reading a letter written by Mark Twain to fellow author George Washington Cable from May 1885. I give a fuller context for the letter in this essay, but suffice it to say here that it arose out of their joint "Twins of Genius" tour promoting their work from November 1884- February 1885. Twain wrote to Cable:
"Your letter came yesterday evening, your telegram about noon. My dear boy, don't give yourself any discomfort about the slander of a professional newspaper liar--we cannot escape such things. I do assure you that this thing did not distress me, or even disturb the flow of my talk (got it at breakfast some days ago), for one single half of a half of a hundredth part of a second; in the same length of time it went out of my mind & was forgotten. To take notice of it in print is a thing which would never have occurred to me. Why, dear friend, flirt it out of your mind, straight off."
Flirt it Out of Your Mind
Now, that is an interesting use of the term, isn't it? It makes the careful reader scurry to the dictionary to see what is "up" with flirt. The word "flirt" is so easy to understand and so interesting that you wonder why we lost the early definitions. Let's begin at the beginning. As a verb it goes back to the 16th century and means "to propel or throw with a jerk or sudden movement; often, to propel by a blow from the finger-nail released from the thumb." Thus, to flirt is basically to flick. The OED tells us that the word origin is onomatopoeic, which means that it, like buzz, goes back to time immemorial. The earliest usages of the term fix its meaning clearly in our mind. From 1602: "Tis thy fashion to flirt inke in everie mans face." Or, from Jonathan Swift (1710), "To keep 'em from flirting the Grain over on the Floor." Even Charles Darwin, in one of his scientific works, could say, "Minute particles of glass..disappeared so suddenly I thought I had flirted them off."
With this basic definition in our mind, we can then see how the word develops. It also takes on, in the 17th century, the notion of blurting something out. From 1649: "The Arch-Bishop still Flirting Divinitie against the Throne." Twain himself used the term in his Connecticut Yankee (he was indebted to Cable in helping him conceive the book, since Cable has insisted Twain read "The Death of Arthur" while they were on tour together): "Of course I whet up* now and then and flirt out a minor prophecy."
[*We could take a long trip down the "whet" road, but let's only do this. 'Whet' is an old, old term and means "to sharpen." One of the OED definitions is "to render more acute, keen, or eager." Then, it says it can also be used with up. An example of the usage without the "up" is from Norton's 1561 translation of Calvin's Institutes: "The very weight of ye thing it self shal whet our endevor." Using "up," we have, from 1823: "The extreme interest I had always felt in the hope of administering to the pleasures & amusement of youth..whetted me up & stimulated me to proceed."]
But flirt can also mean to jab or to strike someone, and it has a specialized usage in the phrase "to flirt a fan," which means to open and close it with a jerk. "She..flirted her fan with such a fury.
I thought I would be through with flirting at this point, but I will take one more essay to make a few fine points and then connect flirt with the word fillip.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long