IS IT FLUTIST OR FLAUTIST?
Countless times people have asked me whether I'm a flutist or a flautist. Since Americans usually pronounce flautist as if it were floutist, I sometimes protest that that I might flaunt my flute, but I would never flout it. Or if I'm in a contrarian mood I might suggest that, if a player of the lute is a lutanist, then I am, in fact, a flutanist. Puns aside, the short answer is that I'm not a flautist, but a flutist. A long answer follows, for those curious about the words we use and how they came to be.
The name of our instrument has its origins in Old French, where it appeared variously as flahuste, flahute, fleute, and flaute. This orthographic smorgasbord was borrowed into Middle English, which served up floute, flowte, floite, and floyte. The invention of movable type and the appearance of dictionaries eventually brought increasing standardization of spelling; in English, our familiar flute was well established by the mid 1500s.
Flutist came soon after; the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is dated 1603. Like flute, it has remained in use since that time - but not without challenges. The first, introduced in the mid-1600s, was flutenist. (You thought I was kidding?) It may have been modeled on the lute/lutanist pair, but these words actually have differing derivations, as evidenced by the A in lutanist. The similarity to lutanist apparently wasn't enough to prop up the awkward flutenist, and it had fallen into disuse by the end of the 1700s.
The next, and more successful challenge to flutist came in the mid 1800s. Some guardian of elevated tone seems to have decided that flutist sounded undignified. Casting about among familiar languages for a plausible substitute, our lexical revisionist snagged the Italian flautista, lopped off the final A, leaving an Italian noun with an English suffix: flautist.
This macaronic mongrel fell pleasantly on English ears, and has since became standard usage in Britain. Interestingly, the OED's first citation is by an American, Nathaniel Hawthorne. The work cited is The Marble Faun, a romance set in Italy, where Hawthorne himself was living as he wrote it. He may have encountered the neologism in England, or perhaps he coined it himself - a grandiloquent American writing in Italy would seem a likely suspect. [Any Hawthorne scholars out there who can confirm - or refute - my hypothesis?]
By now it's
you that I prefer flutist over flautist for its authentic etymology, its long standing in the English language, and for its directness. But flautist becomes an even less desirable option when Americans, wanting not to sound highfalutin, pronounce it floutist instead of flawtist: to flout means to show contempt for, to scoff at, to jeer, to be scornful - making "floutist" a unpleasant epithet indeed.
This introduces a curious fact. The modern Dutch verb fluiten has two principal meanings: to play the flute; and to mock or deride - that is, to flout. An exact parallel exists in English: flute and flout are both descended from the Old French flaute; the only difference between the English pair and the Dutch example is that the English flute and flout established themselves as distinct words during the 1500s. A similar parallel exists in German. One wonders how flute-playing came to have such unsavory associations - were flutists seen as so scornful and arrogant that they became the exemplar of such attitudes? Or did players of the flute, by pursuing such an effete and frivolous pastime, invite the scorn of others?* Whatever the case may be, I would rather be called a flutist than risk such associations.
No discussion of flout is complete without at least a passing mention of flaunt. The two words are so often confused as to be in danger of dissolving into one another. Flaunt means to exhibit ostentatiously, to show off, to be gaudily in evidence. Another pleasing definition I came across is "to wave conspicuously in the air" (usually said of flags and banners). So the word is a handy one to have around, if only to describe the platform manner of certain flautists.
And as long as we're tracking down every member of the motley brood descended from flahuste, et al., what about that highfalutin (also highfaluting, highfaluten, hifalutin) a few paragraphs back? It means absurdly pretentious or pompous in writing or speech; most dictionaries say "origin obscure" and leave it at that. But the OED suggests it may be derived from a whimsical pronunciation of fluting. If that's the case, then this informal but vivid Americanism is another example of the persistent association of flute-playing with things frivolous or ostentatious.
The fact that flautist is standard usage in Britain need not deter Americans from choosing the better word. British English and American English are distinct species; it seems that flautist and flutist will remain among the many divergent usages that distinguish the two.
* "The way leads from playing the flute to pleasure, from pleasure to laziness, from laziness to sleep, from sleep to sin, from sin to death, from death to the devil and hell."
- Stephen Cossman, of Puritan England, as quoted at
www.cns.ohiou.edu/~somalley/music/flute/ [No longer online]