For Those Who Want to Follow the Rules When They Discuss Not Following the Rules

I want to open this blog post with a brief quiz. You are not being graded – except in my private estimation of you as a human being.

Look carefully at the image below.

Are you ready? Here’s the question.

Are the people in the cartoon flaunting the rules?

A)    Yes

B)     No

If you answered “A” for Yes, you are incorrect. These people are not flaunting the rules.

If they were flaunting the rules, they would be putting out their cigarettes, giving the evil eye to anyone else who failed to do so, and handing out pamphlets about the dangers of lung cancer due to second-hand smoke.

So what am I saying? How do you express yourself when someone is knowingly ignoring the rules? If you have described behavior that flagrantly rejects polite norms as “flaunting propriety”, you are not alone. Lots of big-time authors and writers are right there with you. That’s what has finally driven me to write this blog, in humble service to everyone who wants to avoid flouting the rules of English when they refer to people who flaunt bad behavior.

The last straw was a recent blog post by my esteemed colleague over at Life in the Boomer Lane. In an otherwise excellent analysis of the worldwide fall-out when Hillary Clinton was photographed in Bangladesh with spectacles, a casual hair-style, and very little make-up, my fellow writer humorously declares that in “an act that brazenly flaunted common decency and decorum, [Clinton] allowed the world to see the true state of a sixty-four-year-old woman’s face.”

How could you, Hillary?

Later, the writer goes on to say that “Clinton flaunted public opinion further by telling a CNN correspondent” that she felt relieved by the chance to try a more comfortable look.

This galvanizes me to action because I want to say, as I sit at my keyboard in zero make-up, a purple cotton hair-band and glasses, “Good for you, Hillary!” and “Good for you, Life in the Boomer Lane!” for making me smile and bringing Hillary’s confidence to my attention, instead of the latest round of plastic surgery speculations for female celebrities half Hillary’s age. But being the linguistic twit that I am, I cannot say this without exclaiming that Hillary has FLOUTED common decency and decorum (at least as it applies to women in public) and she FLOUTED public opinion (at least as it applies to women in public) by letting a picture of her unvarnished skin hit the media.

I wouldn’t want someone to read my colleague’s post and get the wrong idea about America, because if Hillary is said to have flaunted the accepted approach to female personal grooming, one might think that the US is a place where all women should feel free to appear in whatever state they deem decent, easy and comfortable. And the US is most certainly is not that place.

But I digress.

Before I wrote this blog post I asked a writer friend if she knew the difference between the words “flaunt” and “flout”. She said she had never heard of the word “flout”. Perhaps this is the problem for most people who say “flaunt” when they really mean “flout”.

I would never try to ameliorate the truth of how insufferable I am in the realm of proper linguistic usage to others who occupy themselves with more productive endeavors. But it just breaks my heart when many writers and editors obviously don’t know the distinction between two words whose meanings could not be more different.

I like to think that the beauty of the English language’s grotesquely bloated vocabulary is its specificity. Surely we don’t have such an overloaded language for nothing. There are so many words to choose from – we don’t need to use the wrong word, hoping that it means what we think it means.

My aunt is pretty groovy woman, and she says that life’s real challenge isn’t eradicating our flaws – it’s much more helpful and realistic to simply become self-aware, and recognize our foibles, such as pointing out others’ semantic errors in public.

So I’m going to breathe, and notice what I am. And then press my needs and judgments upon you.

Flaunt: [flawnt] verb

  1. To parade or display oneself conspicuously, defiantly, or boldly.
  2. To wave conspicuously in the air.

Flout: [flout] verb

  1. To treat with disdain, scorn, or contempt; scoff at; mock.

I concede that in the case of Life in the Boomer Lane’s Hillary post, it’s tricky, because while Hillary has not, in fact, flaunted common decency (as it is usually applied to women in public), she has, indeed, flouted societal expectations by flaunting her natural self at age 64.

Try using them each in a sentence.

“The peacock flaunted his feathers in hopes of finding a mate.”

“Rick Santorum flouted American women’s well-being in hopes of securing Tea Party votes.”

Are you still confused? It’s ok. I’m sure you’ve seen the Harry Potter films, so here’s another example that is sure to resonate.

Professor Dolores Umbridge enjoyed flaunting her rules for Hogwarts:

The Weasley twins flouted Professor Umbridge’s rules:

In conclusion, I urge everyone to check out my friend Renee’s excellent work over at Life in the Boomer Lane, which I read every week. I thank her sincerely for her unwitting participation in my blog today.

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12 Comments

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  1. Oy vey, Yikes, and Good Golly Miss Molly. I have flaunted my complete ignorance of the word flout.

    • Alaina Mabaso May 15, 2012 — 6:45 pm

      Ironically, despite my prickly linguistic demeanor, I really enjoy watching language evolve. Good old Webster’s Third – I wrote a paper on that prescriptive/descriptive controversy in college, arguing in favor of better descriptive acceptance, and it’s probably the paper I enjoyed the most out of my whole college career.

      I think it makes sense that “flaunt” has an older meaning that corresponds with how many people use it – isn’t that funny when words develop two meanings that are quite different? Do you think the usage of “flaunt” today to mean “disobey” or “disdain” is because people are clinging to this meaning from times of yore, or because they don’t know or don’t like the word “flout” or its synonyms?

      I was always a girl to squeeze in as many words as possible, so I’m all for permanent separation of the definitions of “flaunt” and “flout”. With an attitude like that, our word pool will continue to increase and I will continue to lord over it as I see fit.

      • Coleman Glenn May 15, 2012 — 7:09 pm

        Oh, I think that usage of “flaunt’ has always been because of people mistaking it with “flout” (although a post on the Language Log blog points out that when we think of someone flouting the law, usually we think of them breaking it in an ostentatious way – flaunting their law-breakage – which makes “flaunt” feel more correct, and explains why it’s much more common to write “flaunt” for “flout” than to write “flout” for “flaunt”; http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004798.html). So even in times of yore, it was used that way mistakenly. It’s just that this mistaken usage has enough history and tradition behind it that Merriam-Webster now gives it the OK. Hooray for evolution!

      • Alaina Mabaso May 15, 2012 — 7:16 pm

        You’re right – buried within the definition of “flout” there may be the act of flaunting, because if you’re not really making an effort to flaunt your wrongdoing, you’re not really flouting the law, are you?

        I guess the solution would be to A) adhere to my blog in all matters of linguistic decorum or B) continue to muddle along as we have since the Normans stormed Britain.

  2. It took me nearly halfway down the page to figure out you were going super-Language-Nazi and I doubt I would have gotten to that point if I wasn’t one to finish what I start.

  3. Thank you, thank you!

  4. One of my favorite sayings: The dictionary is your friend. It obviously rubbed off on you – another great blog!

    • Alaina Mabaso May 15, 2012 — 6:58 pm

      I should resent the dictionary, seeing as I was teased in grade-school by peers who referred to me as “the dictionary”. It wasn’t a term of endearment.

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