Weird Words, Part 5

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1973 Edition


Don’t ask me when I used this word last. I couldn’t tell you. But it wasn’t all that long ago. Usually, you will hear it (when you hear it, which isn’t probably all that often really) with an “ed on the end of it. I don’t use it often, but when I do, I usually really mean it.

Flummox is thought to be a cant word of uncertain origins (circa 1837) and most probably from some forgotten British dialect. My guess, if it is indeed a cant word, is that at some point, it left obscurity and found its way into normal conversation. Well, as normal as a conversation can be that includes a word like flummox. A cant word, in case you are curious, is the jargon, argot, or cryptolect of a specific group, often used to exclude or mislead people outside of the group. I haven’t looked it up, but I’m going to guess that cryptolect is a dialect containing a lot of coded words. Have you ever listened to a couple of computer programmers talking about their latest projects? I’d be willing to bet that would qualify as a cryptolect.

Basically, flummox means to confound, bewilder, confuse, maul or mangle (maul or mangle?). Because of the mangle angle, some suggest that it came from flummery which is (was? Does anyone still eat this?!) a meaty porridge, according to one source. Other sources say it is more like a custard or soft pudding made from boiling flour or oatmeal until thick. That I can understand. I like my oatmeal thick and pasty. But I’m not sure I could eat something called flummery. Sounds more like a sham or a ruse to me and I like my food to just be what it is … food. And you will never catch me calling my morning oatmeal a porridge.


I’ve probably used this word, also with an “ed” on the end, more often than I’ve used flummox. I love the way both these words sound, but I love flabbergast a little bit more. A good example of using the word in a sentence might be, “I was totally flabbergasted to see that mouse riding a cat, with the cat riding a dog that was walking down the sidewalk.” If you’ve ever seen anything like that, you know what it feels like to be flabbergasted. I’ve never seen that in person, but I did see it once on America’s Funniest Home Videos. That show was one of my guilty pleasures. We don’t watch TV anymore. It just got to be too expensive.

Simply put, it means to be overcome with amazement as in “This boggles the mind!” It is also defined as astounded, to make speechless, shocked, or surprised. Boggle is another interesting word. For the most part, it seems to mean to shy away from or be overcome by fright or astonishment. It boggles my mind how many different words the English language has for the same thing.

At any rate, it is thought that flabbergast is slang from the 18th century and that it is a contraction of flabby and aghast. The idea is that one is made limp (flabby) by being in a state of shock (aghast). Sounds pretty flimsy to me. Hey, if you don’t really know where a word came from, just say so. There’s no shame in not knowing something.


I really hate to admit that I’ve used this word in the course of a normal conversation because I’m sure that it dates me. And if you are partial to watching re-runs of the Andy Griffith show on television, I can bet you’ve heard Aunt Bea say this at one time or another.

It was first used in English Literature some time before 1605 and William Shakespeare is cited as having helped to make it more popular. A flibbertigibbet is someone who is silly, scatterbrained, flighty, chattering or light-headed. It is used about four times out of a sample of 100 million words spoken or written in English. That often? Really? Internet searches containing the word occur at an average rate of four per day. Who knew?

Etymology online (Etymonline) says that most likely it is a nonsense word meant to sound like fast talking. Does that make the word onomatopoeic? You know, words like buzz, hiss, and hum that sound like the sound they stand for. No … I just don’t see it. No matter how many times I say flibbertigibbet, it just doesn’t sound like a vapid chatterbox of a person. Hey, but I got to use onomatopoeic in a sentence, didn’t I. It’s not every day you can do that.

Well, I’m completely flummoxed for how to end this article gracefully. And I’m flabbergasted that it has gone on as long as it has because I’ve never considered myself to be a flibbertigibbet. But there you are.

Published by Dianne Lehmann

I'm a writer. But I'm also a wife and a mom to a couple of fur babies. You could call me a cook (but never a chef, I'm not that good) and provisioner as well. Laundress? Yeah. Probably. I design jewelry and I crochet. But mostly I love to write. I love words and how they sound. I love their meanings and origins. I love stringing them together. And of course, I love to read. Thinking about it just now, I realize that what I love most is life and the people around me with a special place set aside for my wonderful husband, our adorable dog and our inscrutable cat. It's the world and the people in it that fuels my writing. So thanks to you all for being the amazing beings that you are.

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