Sunday, May 26, 2013


David from Traverse City asked about the word flap, used to mean an agitated situation. It’s a favorite of headline writers, as a few random examples will illustrate.

  • NPR: “Decades Of History Behind IRS Flap”
  • Honolulu Star Advertiser: “Osaka mayor: Lack of sensitivity caused flap”
  • CBS Eye On Sports: “Fuzzy Zoeller: Flap over Sergio Garcia comment will 'blow over.'”
  • The Times of London: “RBS customers in a flap over bank’s mobile app.”
  • The Australian: “In a flap over the Great Subsidy”
  • billboardbiz:  “A Flap Over 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'”
  • ABC News: Mexico Fires Official in Flap Over Influence Abuse
  • TimesLive: “Russia in flap over song contest 'rigging'”
  • The Washington Times: “A month after U.S.-Russia flap over Boston Marathon bombing, American ‘spy’ detained in Moscow”

 Originally (14th c.), it meant a slap—probably in imitation of the sound of hand against cheek. Around the same time, it meant a contemptuous rebuke. By the 18th century, it meant the noise produced by motion. A century later, it referred to a disturbance or tumult. So there’s a fairly clear thread that involves sound, motion, disturbance, and agitation or conflict.

Like many words, it also acquired accretions over the centuries—other applications of the spelling. The idea of a projecting part was applied to zipper or button coverings on clothing, the part of a book jacket that folds under the book’s cover, human tissue used in surgical grafting, and the part of an envelope or a box or a tent used to close it.

Airplane wings have moveable surfaces called flaps, and in phonetics, a flap is a consonant sound produced by a single quick flip of the tongue against the upper part of the mouth.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

Nook edition

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