“Flummoxed”

This summary appeared February 3 on the home page of the New York Times:

screen-shot-2017-02-03-at-9-50-48-pm

It reminded me that a couple of weeks back, someone suggested “flummoxed” as a NOOB. That sort of flummoxed me, as I had thought of it as a cross-Atlantic word, claimed neither by BrE not AmE. Google Ngram Viewer showed me I was mistaken and my correspondent was correct:screen-shot-2017-02-04-at-11-12-33-amThat is, it started out as a mainly British word, but Americans took a shine to it starting in the 1970s, and finally overtook the British in the late ’90s.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines the word as “confused, let down, outwitted” and has as its first citation a 1834 book called Delicious Chatter: “Joe own’d he was flummix’d and diddles at last.” Three years later, in Pickwick Papers, Dickens has Mr. Weller say, “And my ‘pinion is, Sammy, that if your governor don’t prove an alleybi, he’ll be what the Italians call regularly flummoxed, and that’s all about it.”

The OED doesn’t support the Italian etymology but does say the word had a distinct meaning in nineteenth century America. So does Green’s, which quotes Schele De Vere’s Americanisms (1872): “Flummux, to, a slang term used in England in the sense of to hinder, to perplex, denotes in America the giving up of a purpose, and even to die.” It seems to have faded out in the U.S. in the early twentieth century.

The New York Times has used “flummoxed” exclusively in the British sense, first in a dispatch from the 1935 British Open: “there was some confusion regarding ownership of the balls and Smith, being slightly deaf, got so thoroughly “flummoxed” — as the Scots say–over instructions from the marker, his partner and the friendly crowd …” The next use was in 1949, and since then it has appeared in the newspaper 1,434 times–including eight in the first weeks of 2017. Its popularity in this moment isn’t surprising: like “government officials and travelers,” many of us over here feel pretty flummoxed pretty much all the time.

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2 responses to ““Flummoxed”

  1. My family is in that 20% that always used it–since it’s not Scottish I can’t figure why. Maybe they just liked the sound of it.

  2. That 1834 example sounds thoroughly American! I wonder if this isn’t a word that’s crossed the Atlantic twice.

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