A Word, Please: Try not to flout this knowledge

A Jan. 20 Reuters article reported that outgoing FCC chairman Tom Wheeler urged lawmakers to keep net neutrality rules in place. According to the article, "companies already are flaunting the rules."

Really? They're flaunting them? Perhaps. But it seems more likely they're flouting those rules.

Traditionally, to flaunt means to show off something, the way you'd show off an engagement ring or a fancy new car. To flout means to brazenly disregard, usually a rule, a law or a social convention, as in wearing a Speedo to a wedding.

The words are similar, so it's no surprise that people mix them up, most commonly by using "flaunt" when they mean "flout" (and only occasionally using "flout" to mean "flaunt").

"Both words are used to describe open, unashamed behavior, and both typically suggest disapproval of such behavior," notes Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. "They are, in fact, used in such similar ways that they go together easily in a sentence."

For example, if you wear a Speedo to a wedding, you're flouting social convention even as you're flaunting things nobody at that wedding wants to see.

Merriam's believes there's more going on here than just confusion. Over time, people who have used "flaunt" to mean the contemptuous disregard previously reserved for "flout" have given the word that connotation.

"Those who now use it do so not because they are confused — they do so because they have heard and seen it so often that its use seems natural and idiomatic. They use it, in other words, because they are familiar with it as an established sense of 'flaunt.'"

As regular readers of this column have heard me say many times: When enough people use a word "wrong" often enough, it becomes right. And, no, that's not a harm to the language. That's how language has always evolved. It's how many of the words we use today came to be.

The tricky part is knowing when, exactly, a word has completed its transformation to take on the new meaning. And nothing makes me happier than being able to say: That's not my job. It's a job I would want.

Lexicographers, linguists and other experts spend a lot of time trying to figure out whether this or that word usage has become popular enough that, by popularity alone, it is deemed correct.

Take "cool," for example. It's not hard to recall the dark days before Fonzie helped us see that cool is not just a temperature. Its cool factor could still be on the rise if etymologists tracking the alternate spelling "kewl" have peeked into the future.

Me, I don't want to be the target-wearing messenger who may one day announce that "kewl" is acceptable in scholarly journals and on job resumes. But I'm always happy to see language experts whose skins are thicker than mine take a stand. That's why a recent post by language blogger Stan Carey about "flaunt" and "flout" brought welcome words.

After conducting a good amount of research, then carefully weighing all the evidence, Carey reached this firm yet wise position on whether it's time to let "flaunt" mean "flout."

"I don't conclude quite yet that 'the towel has been thrown in, game over," he wrote. "I'll continue to observe and apply the distinction, because it is a useful one, and I recommend that you do the same."

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "The Best Punctuation Book, Period." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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