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Dear Word Detective: I was told that the phrase “floor flusher” was associated with late 19th century department stores employees sent out on to the “floor” to help “flush out” potential customers. True? Or charming but false? — Carolyn.
Are those my only choices? How about “very strange and really, really wrong in several different ways”? But thanks for the great question, and I’m not being sarcastic. Were it not for folks sending me the strange word origin stories they’ve heard, writing this column wouldn’t be half as much fun. Right now, for instance, I’m picturing a large man, a sort of “reverse bouncer” bearing a carnation in his lapel and a cattle prod in his paw, approaching a herd of apprehensive Macy’s shoppers with a cheery “Can I help youse?”
Onward. If you plug “floor flusher” into Google, you get more than 57,000 ghits (short for “Google hits”), so it may come as a surprise when I say that “floor flusher” is not actually the phrase you’re looking for. The slang term is “four flusher,” meaning “a bluffer, a cheat, a worthless, dishonest person.” Those Google hits are almost all for a 1954 Popeye cartoon entitled “Floor Flusher” (available on YouTube.com) in which Bluto and Popeye wrestle for the right to fix Olive Oyl’s plumbing problems. At one point (yes, I watched it), after Bluto has completely flooded her house, Olive shouts, “Don’t touch me, you floor flusher!” The cartoon’s title is thus a pun on “four flusher.” The pun works because, by 1954, “four flusher” had been popular American slang for at least fifty years.
The actual origin of “four flusher” was the game of poker, where a “flush” is a high hand composed of five cards of the same suit. (The roots of “flush” in this poker sense are obscure, but may refer to the hand “washing away” the other players.) A “flush” of only four cards, however, is worthless, and to “four-flush” — to bluff other players with such a hand — became a metaphor for feigning knowledge, accomplishment or courage (“‘I thought he was going to fight.’ ‘Not that boy. He was four-flushin’.” George Ade, “Artie,” 1896).