Flaunting flautists and brazen blazes

I haven’t been here long, but already a grammatical dustup reminds me of one reason why this job is so much fun.

It all started with a headline in the Jan. 3 Index-Tribune, “Sonomans flaunt wood-burn rules.” According to several letter-writers, it should have read, “Sonomans flout wood-burn rules.”

Merriam-Webster defines flaunt as “to display ostentatiously or impudently.” It also provides a secondary definition, more or less the same as that of flout: “to treat contemptuously.” This is obviously the meaning we were looking for. (It adds that this version of flaunt “undoubtedly arose from confusion with flout.”)

For example, say you are a flautist. Flautists always flaunt their flaut while on parade. But they never really flout their flaut – or if they do, they should probably switch to clarinet.

It gets complicated, especially when you consider the derivation of these words. The origin of flaunt is not certain, but may come from a Nordic word meaning “to run back and forth” or “to rush around.”

Meanwhile, flout comes from Middle English flouten, which means, believe it or not, “to play the flute,” as flautists do. The idea is that we scoff at something by whistling at it.

While flaunt probably came to mean flout due to similar phonetics, their meanings bleed together as well. Webster’s defines flaunt, rather wonderfully, as “to make a gaudy, ostentatious, conspicuous, impudent, or defiant display” – and that “defiant display” sounds very like the flout that breaks rules “without hiding what you are doing or showing fear or shame” (Mirriam-Webster).

So in theory, someone could flaunt the wood-burning law as well as flout it by building a gigantic bonfire in their front yard, then standing around with a sandwich board stating “HAPPY SPARE THE AIR DAY.” But that is extreme behavior, and we have no reports of anyone doing that, even in Glen Ellen.

Whatever the case, swapping those words remains “objected to by many,” says Webster’s – and so it is, including by many locals.

And this gets me back to that enjoyable facet of newspapering: Polite and well-considered letters (or emails) intent on discussing the finer points of the English language. We writers love this sort of thing.

“Yes, people often use ‘flaunt’ when they mean ‘flout,’” wrote James Pendergast of Sonoma, “but in my opinion, it hasn’t quite achieved the status of standard, accepted usage.” He added, “But perhaps I’m just a hidebound linguistic fossil.”

Not at all sir! Or maybe! But if so, then so am I.

Susan Fegan of Sonoma Valley speculated, “Perhaps Don Frances had a New Year’s Day hangover when he wrote (the headline), and didn’t notice that he had typed ‘flaunt’ instead of ‘flout.’ I would hate to think that a staff writer at the I-T didn’t know the difference.”

Sadly, I was not hung over that day. And while I never noticed this pitfall before (and I make it my business to know them), the truth is I’m no less confused having looked into it.

It’s interesting that, following the Jan. 3 story, most of the people writing us directly wanted to talk grammar.

Meanwhile, a debate over the content of the story – particularly the merits of Spare the Air Day and its enforcer, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District – rages on, mostly online. Are rules against burning wood on high-pollution days a benign and reasonable attempt at making our air cleaner? Or are they evidence of nanny-state despotism, turning neighbor against neighbor?

Suddenly, the grammar debate seems all the more enjoyable.