Friday, March 16, 2007


Q. I used to hear the word flippertigibbet more in the past than I do now. Where did it come from? We used it to mean a flighty person. Joan/Torch Lake, MI

A. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is onomatopoeia (where the sound of the word suggests its meaning).

In its early form, it was spelled flybbergybe, and it meant a chattering or gossiping person. (An obsolete meaning of gibbet was to whoop or cry out to signal to your dog that the hunt was on.)

By Shakespeare’s time, it was one of the names that signified a minor devil or demon. He seems to have read a book by Samuel Harsnet with the delightful title, Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures. A few of the names mentioned in Harsnet show up in King Lear, including our focus today:

Edgar: This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet: he begins at curfew, and walks till the first cock; he gives the web and the pin, squints the eye, and makes the harelip; mildews the white wheat, and hurts the poor creature of earth. Lear III. iv.

In the works of Scott, Coleridge, and Stevenson, it had lost some of the diabolocal baggage and referred to someone mischievous or flighty.

If you have seen Sound of Music, you know that it was used in the song, How can you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find a word that means Maria?
A flibbertijibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! A clown!

That has probably extended its life.

Sidebar: read Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures

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