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shameless pleading


Up in the air.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did “high falutin'” come from?  Did I spell it correctly? — Julie.

Yes you did, and while I’m sure there are many “high falutin” folks out there who would insist that “faluting” is the proper form, rest assured that they are wrong.  The only slight correction I would offer is that “highfalutin” is usually seen as one word, and the apostrophe at the end isn’t really necessary.  Although “highfalutin” is clearly a cropped form of “highfaluting,”  “highfalutin” (no apostrophe) is listed as the primary spelling by the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Highfalutin,” of course, means “pompous, arrogant, haughty, pretentious” or “excessively ornate or bombastic (especially in speech).”  The sense of “pretentious” is central to “highfalutin.”  Someone who affects a “highfalutin” manner, acting or speaking in an extremely proper or self-important style, is basically faking it and “putting on airs,” floating along in a balloon of pretense that has no basis in reality (“When all the highfalutin and magical jargon of diplomacy is removed, you’ll find the diplomats like a group of children aged about three or four,” 1948).

So much for the easy part.  As I noted about a decade ago when I first tackled “highfalutin,” the origin of the word is uncertain.  The reader who sent in that question in 1999 had heard that “highfalutin” originally denoted a fine grade of flour used to make a superior sort of bread.  That theory (for which there is no evidence) turned out to be based on a probable  confusion of “highfalutin” with “high gluten” flour, which does indeed produce a better grade of bread.

We do know that “highfalutin” is an American coinage and first appeared in the mid-1800s.  “Highfalutin” was one of a number of popular epithets of the day, including “stuffed shirt” and “stuck-up,” with which 19th century Americans expressed their disrespect for those who flaunted their wealth and power.

While the origin of “highfalutin” may be a mystery, there are two generally accepted hunches, either of which might be true.  The “high” in “highfalutin” is almost certainly our common adjective, signifying either physical height or, figuratively, magnitude.

Some authorities suggest that the “falutin” in “highfalutin” is a modification of “fluting,” meaning to play a flute or produce sounds similar to those made by a flute.  Perhaps, goes this theory, “highfalutin” was inspired by the airy, delicate speech tones of  hoity-toity rich folks.  There’s no evidence to support this theory, but it’s not implausible.

The other popular theory traces the “falutin” to “flying” or “flown,” making “highfalutin” the equivalent of “high-flown,” meaning “exaggerated” or “elevated.”  What makes this theory the more plausible of the two is the fact that “high-flown” has been used as an adjective meaning “extravagant or bombastic” since the mid-1600s (“Sentiments, which are occasionally too high-flown and overstrained, 1784), so this theory is actually grounded in an existing idiom.

44 comments to Highfalutin

  • Dayton

    I have no means to substantiate my theory, but I always thought it was a corruption of “saluting”. A “high-saluting” military man might be overly crisp and formal in his bearing, and condescending to subordinates. I figured the transformation of S to F might have derived from the era when the “long s” “aka “medial s” or “descending s” was widespread.

    • Graham Grant

      I think you should think again, this word was used – to mean pompous, arrogant, haughty – by Geoffrey Chaucer in ‘The Physician’s Tale’ written in 14th Century (see my comment at the bottom of the page). Not too many crisp military men in Medieval England.

      • Mik

        Graham, and others: user TA refuted this factoid in his/her reply: “Chaucer actually uses the word “countrefeted,” which is Middle English. “Highfalutin” appears in at least one translation of the Tale into modern English; but the term does not appear in Chaucer’s text. I hope that helps!”

  • David F

    I wonder if falutin’ might have come from flaunt or flaunting?


  • Greg

    In the dseries/documentry “The adveture of English” it was suggested that highfalutin referred to the high flutes on the river boats. As opposed to the riff raff who sailed in small rafts using paddles called riffs.

  • matt

    I thought it was something you apply a gradation to. Maybe there’s a situation is which we are lowfalutin of just middlefalutin. Can we be extremefalutin? Usually I’m just falutin if I’m lucky.

  • Emmaean

    As one from old Southern US stock, I have believed for a long time that high falutin gained its origin in that the best statesrooms on the old paddlewheelers plying the Mississippi River were high up, and flanking the twin smokestacks. These smokestacks were often fluted to resemble the Greek Revival columns popular in the architecture of the day. Those of us (my ancestors, that is) down in the steerage called the inhabitants of those cabins “high falutin” speaking with our Southern drawl.

    • I love this answer about the columns. My sister just developed a theory that the word highfalutin came from the latin word valute, which described a fluted or fancy trim around the top of a greek column. I thought it was brilliant and went searching and was thrilled to see your comment!

    • Mr. Rick

      I have heard this explanation before, or something similar. The better place to be was where the embers and ash from the “high fluted smokestacks” would pass over your head, rather than rain down upon you – as in the steerage seats. Paddle wheelers with high “fluted” stacks were more upscale.

    • Ken

      I am also from an old southern family. My grandparents used this term frequently and I use it still. I always understood it to originate from riding high on a steamboat. I’m not sure about the “falutin” originating from fluted stacks, floating, or Fulton, but I can say that at least as far back as the late 19th century on the Tennessee River it was understood to be steamboat-related. I’m surprised this is not better known. It’s no secret down here.

      • Ken

        Follow-up comment – I have rarely heard steamboats referred to as “Fulton-boats” before, although “paddle-wheeler” was the common term used. Sometimes “side-wheeler” if the boat was, in fact, a side wheeler.

  • Lisa B

    I was just in New Glarus, Wisconsin at a Museum of artifacts and tools used back in the 1800s, 1900s and oe thing that was pointed out was a little iron that woman would use to make flute like crinkles into the colors of there blouses and thought that maybe it had to do with that. Different ranks of socialites and different wealthy groups maybe it came from that??

  • Harmon

    Always heard it as “highfaluting.”

    Seems most reasonable to think it is a corruption of “high flaunting,” which is a little bit of a tongue twister.

    • Tom W

      I was born and raised near Charlotte, NC, and I’ve never – not once in my life – heard highfalutin with a “g” at the end. I’m pretty sure that if I had, I would’ve been quick to point out that the person using that form of pronunciation was highfalutin themselves.

      • Chris O

        Like Tom, I’ve never heard this with a fully-enunciated ‘g’ at the end. This is coming from central Indiana. I’ve been surprised to find the term in more common use lately.

  • Angela Watershoo

    The word faluting comes from the French falut, which means salvation. A high faluting person is a person who is a religous zealot. The meaning became generalized to refer to all forms of arrogance.

  • Adam B

    I’ve always wondered where this phrase came from. In the absence of actual knowledge, I came up with this origin. The term comes from the Greek architectural detail of “fluted” columns. Modern examples can be seen here.
    Since larger more expensive homes would have tall pillars out front with higher fluting, one could say “that is some high fluting” or Highfalutin.

  • Yoav

    While looking up on wikipedia some info about thomas mores famous book Utopia, we discovered that the narrators greek name was. “Hythlodaeus means “dispenser
    of nonsense” ;

    Maybe there is a link…

  • Cheryl Fischman

    The smokestack comment is indeed the correct answer as is the riff raff in same comment

  • Robert

    The explanations that make the most sense in this discussion to me are the riverboat because of the pronunciation of “falutin” for fluting. For example, “Then thar peeples is tha highfalutin ones sitting up thar on the top, you see Jeb. Theys is the ones with all da money….My humble opinion…

  • Nick M.

    I wonder if the word Fluting refers to the fluting (ridges) done in armour?

  • Robert C

    Just my opinion that we got off on the wrong track here from the beginning. Why would anyone think that a southerner (such as myself) would take an easy word such as fluting and increase the difficulty of pronunciation by adding an “a”. Fluting would only be shortened to flutin and all true Southerners known that. So maybe we are trying to compensate for that by saying its steamboat related? I personally don’t know the origin myself but I’d go with Angela Watershoo’s definition above from high valuting before the steamboat explanation.

  • Nora A.

    This was the question from “the Moot Game” to which high-falutin was given as the answer:
    What word was coined to describe flautists who held their instruments pretentiously high while performing?

    • SMitty

      That is absolutely correct. This style of play was thought to be done by the overly pretentious and it was applied to people the way we apply sarcastic titles now.

  • Demetre

    It had to do with the steam boats in the south mainly in mississippi and tennesse. Lower class people could only afford tickets in the bottom level. Middle class in the middle section. All the well to do people with alot of money enjoyed being outside on the top deck. There is where the smoke stacks where which are called flutes. So all the people on the lower levels called them highfaluten.

  • Jeff

    Any way you look at it, the origin appears to be from a mistake, either in pronunciation or in spelling. It is sad to me that our language is allowed to evolve in such a way, as the end result of this type of folly is ultimately to render this form of communication unable to represent ideas accurately from one person to another. If I can’t trace the origin, then I don’t consider it a real word.

    • Mike

      Au contraire! I find it quite natural for mistakes to be a part of this, much like an organic process whereby meanings evolve. To be “allowed to evolve in such a way” does not necessarily imply a reduction in meaning nor clarity of communication. Look back to ancient times for examples where a single word had many meanings, compared with today’s practice where there are multiple words that convey multiple nuanced subsets of the original single word. Do you think these evolved through some orderly or controlled process? I would suggest they did not — rather, the evolution of words is messy and largely uncontrolled. Usage patterns drive change to formal language.

      An example:
      “Probably” was once “probablely”, and has in many places now become “probly”, and (ach!) I’ve seen prolly… it’ll prolly become prolly at some point.

      Still, I suspect you and I would find common ground in railing against the use of “friend” as a verb. To my ears, the perfectly usable verb is “befriend”, and I wish the OED would have avoided including “friend” as a verb! I also decry the use of “fail” as a noun. For me the word is “failure”, notwithstanding its misuse in popular culture. “Fail” as a noun is a failure!

  • Arfistov

    I suspect the French connection to be valid. It wouldn’t be the first Cajun expression bastardized by the southern sorgum drawl. Being close to New Year’s I cite Hoppin John — a derivative of pois pegeon — as precedence.

  • Wayne White

    Although I expect the gentleman referring to the steamboats is probably correct, I would wonder if any credence could be derived from inferring a high pitched passing of gas, flatulence. It is indeed a derogatory remark to the upper class who would think they were better than the general population. Just a thought.

  • Graham Grant

    If ‘highfalutin’ is supposedly an American word originating in the 1820’s howcome Geoffrey Chaucer used this word in ‘The Physician’s Tale’ written in 14th Cent?
    No highfalutin pretty words had she
    To ape deep knowledge; after her degree
    She spoke,and all her words, greater and less,
    Tended to virtue and to gentleness.

    • T A

      Chaucer actually uses the word “countrefeted,” which is Middle English. “Highfalutin” appears in at least one translation of the Tale into modern English; but the term does not appear in Chaucer’s text. I hope that helps!

  • Steamboats are correct – When people realized they could charge for rides on the riverboats, the water level seats were the cheapest, followed by the first tier, followweed by the level. Each level became increasingly most costly. However, the top level subjected the passengers to the smoke from the boilers. To rectify the problem, the stacks were made a bit higher, with the “flutes” on top (as depicted by photos from the era) would dicipate the smoke away from the passengers. Thus, the people on the top level had the “money” to sit there, as thusly became the “high flutin'” people.

  • Graham Grant

    Thank you, it does help and I am very grateful. Graham

  • julie

    the smokestacks stuff sounds too cute by half. i suspect the high-flying/high-flown idea is the real origin…but why do u dismiss high-FLOATING out of hand? that seems by far a more likely source if you’re going w theory 2.

    high-faloatin’ as an intermediary form if u will. i could well picture it pronounced this way in satire, comics, etc.

  • Tom

    one reason people think it should be high-faluting is that for example i’ve seen it spelt high-falutin’ asif it were the survival of the old participle and the back-corrected to the modern participle from the gerundive -ing; which of course is a hi falutin’ grammar nazi invention to spread the gerundive back over the participle

  • Rachael

    Maybe silly, but… Though I’m a Tennessean, and grew up with the steamboat metaphor, I was suddenly wondering: does anyone think “highfalutin” might be related to thd Greek word “philautia”– self love? So “highfalutin” could be an adjective/adverb meaning “too much love, arrogance,etc.” Believe me, I know this sounds crazy!

  • Susanne

    Just discovered this wonderful, fun, site, as I tried to figure out whether Holmes’ Watson would have used this word in 1920. I decided not, given the comments here. Thank you all!

  • […] is a highfalutin term known as “the regulative principle of worship.” It means that we should worship […]

  • Demps

    Not quite sure where the term began, but the riverboat smokestack story is interesting. I do know that H.L. Mencken popularized the term in his reporting on the Scopes trial, July 1925 from Dayton, Tennessee.

  • Jim Coffey

    It may come from Dutch.

    Hoog valuta means “High value” in Dutch. Easy to see how it could become “Highfalutin” as it became Americanized.

  • SMitty

    This is silly. Nora A. has it right. This term was as a pejorative against those trying to put on airs the same why a high stepping/high playing flutist might do. The flute being a very common instrument of the times

  • Mike

    I had heard various of the steamboat stories before, as attributions for the origin of the term. The high flutes, and the high fluting. (Also the wearing of black top hats by the wealthy, as a resemblance to the high flutes). And the higher decks on steamboats versus the lower decks. I think Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) used the term repeatedly.

    I also think the high-playing flautist (flutist) reference is interesting. Despite SMitty’s apparent certainty, who’s to say it didn’t have multiple resonances in earlier times when this term appeared in usage. I don’t think this would be the first instance of a term having multiple “origins”. Even if one was the origin (in common usage) and the other a resonance in common usage that gave rise to wide usage, having multiple significant “origins” is not impossible, and I suspect this would not be the first such case.

    Look up Samuel Clemens use of the term, and tell me this: if there’s a term that is used by merely a few, and then because of a resonance in common culture and usage it becomes very widespread for some different reason, should not both sets of meaning be included as significant to the origin, in the etymology of the word? If “sghthbet” had a usage by 400 people, and then the sound came to resemble some new occurrence in common life, and that term and usage were published by a popular author/humorist thus resulting in its use by several million people, then which would you consider was the “origin” of the word? I’d say both. Even if the numbers were half a million and then 2 million, I’d still say both.

  • Brenton

    Thinking about the smokestack answer. Here in Australia we have Posh – allegedly meaning Port Out Starboard Home arising from the desire for the delicate wealthy folk not to have cabins that heated up in the sun.

    And of course at the other end of the scale we have Poms and Pommies allegedly derived from Prisoner of Mother England that refers to anyone of British decent particularly those bastards that turn in up in Oz without learning to speak the flaming lingo properly mate.

    So perhaps it is not unusual for people to be labelled by the status of their passage and manner of arrival.

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