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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.

62 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.

    • Catherine S.

      I have read about “highfalutin” today for the first time ever and I love it.
      Its origin cannot be what you say. I am French, and I know for sure that the right French word for “salvation” is “salut”, not “falut”, English and French words both coming from the same Latin root.

  • 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.

    • D Carothers

      I must disagree with you Robert. I have lived in the South my entire life, and my family has lived in the South since Jamestown. I don’t know the origin of the word highfalutin, but the adding of an “a” is very much a Southern convention. Many, many people pronounce Smyrna, Tennessee, as “Samyrna”. Don’t ask me why: they just do – and the same folks do the same thing with other words. It’s as if they have trouble forming the consanant blend. A dear friend of mine in Alabama pronounces s’mores as samoas – just like the islands.

    • JM

      Southerner comin’ in from the future to say: Sometimes we just say things because they are fun to say. Somebody’s grandaddy might just have liked the way “falutin” rolled off the tongue.

      But… go ahead and say “high fluting” out loud, espcially if you’re from down here.

      If you were trying to spell that while listening to someone else say, I imagine you’d pop an “A” in there.

      It’s awfully hard to say without a hint of a vowel in that spot.

  • 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!

    • Dee

      You just revealed the correct attitude that fits ‘highfalutin’…

    • JM

      That’s mighty highfalutin of you, sir.

  • 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.

  • Highfalutin came from the high fluted ceilings where the smoke and cooking odors rose high in the air, and where the very rich ate without breathing the smoke. The poorer people ate without the high fluted ceilings, so the smoke was inhaled by them while eating their meal. This occurred in the 12th century, when ‘eating out’ became popular. Before this, most folks at home. Angela.

  • Anonymous

    My boyfriend thinks it may be associated with “fancy folks” raising a champagne flute, toasting one another,Cheers!

  • Linda Rose

    I’m an OEDaphite. Thanks for great work.
    Smart and based in reality!

  • Julia S

    I believe that Mike’s comments, about the term having multiple resonances is plausible. Angela Watershoo and Nora A both suggest logical scenarios and the steamboat idea is equally reasonable and widely used. It also seems to me that Brenton (above) himself may well be a POM or have Pommie relatives as those of us here in Australia who have been born here or brought up here without an English connection never refer to our country as ‘Oz’ (or even ‘Aus’). It is a creation of the British. There is another one.

  • Rocky Riprap

    I don’t suppose it would have anything to do with looters engaging in their dirty deeds in Haifa. . . .

    Very entertaining string! Love you all!

  • Duck504

    I’m going with the idea that falutin’ is a made-up word that just sounds right for the context.

    Doh! Any other theory is a bunch of hooey! Jabberwocky it is!

  • Lon

    Read the article on “high falutin”.Just wondering, what with the proximity and all, you don’t suppose falutin’ might possibly be a transmogrification of flaunting?

  • PAL

    Hey, I wondered about this one. The finer things and luxury were associated with champagne. “Champagne taste” .. etc The tall glasses are called “flutes” I wonder if tall glasses or the act of raising them could have any meaning?

  • Jules

    I don’t suppose there is a connection with the Hindu word ‘Alftaoon’ meaning overblown or pompous. That is a Satire on the Islamic word for Plato – Aflatoon, which in turn is from the Latin Alfatus, meaning inspired.

  • Rose

    Although it is unsatisfying, I’m leaning toward the explanation that highfalutin was some sort of corruption of “high flown” as that word meant basically the same thing and was used by English speakers since the 1600s.

    Some of the reasons I don’t buy the steamboat story are: outside of websites devoted to 19th century steamers, no normal people ever seemed to mention the “high fluting” on old steamers’ smokestacks. I couldn’t find any mention of “fluting” at all among ordinary people. No steamboats’ smokestacks were actually fluted at all, as far as I can tell. Old pillars/columns on old Greek Revival mansions were often fluted, but smokestacks were always round and never fluted. Some of the later and larger steamers did employ what they called “fluting” at the tops of some smokestacks, but they weren’t using the word’s known meaning. A column that is fluted is carved out so that the outer surface is corrugated, like cardboard when you pull it apart.

    That’s what fluting means. The so-called “fluting” used at the top of some steamers’ smokestacks referred to a sort of iron fencing that usually flared out a bit. It was designed to block or break down burning embers (which made it up from the engine) so that they would not fall down on the board itself. If the “fluting” did its job, th largest embers would hev broken down before they had a chance to escape into the air. Again, only boatbuilders and experts seemed to refer to these iron caps as “fluting”. They were never common among 19th century steamers. A relatively small number used them, as will be seen by examining lots of pics of 19th century steamers, although many of the modern reproductions tend to use them, probably for their decorative value. Most old steamboats had no “fluting”.

    Further, sitting on the top deck of a steamer, completely uncovered, was never something wealthy people would want to do, and it was never more expensive to use the upper deck. In fact it was just the opposite. It was always cheaper to sit outside.

    Women, white women particularly, would do everything in their power to avoid the sun. Hats, gloves, veils, and parasols were standard equipment on sunny days. A covered deck was always preferable, if an enclosed stateroom of some kind was not available. And if anyone was concerned about experiencing smoke and embers from a smokestacks, sitting next to those smokestacks uncovered would certainly not be the sensible choice. Why would smoke or debris from a smokestack be less of a issue sitting outside right next to the stack as opposed to being inside an enclosed room, berth or stateroom? That doesn’t make any sense. When the boat was moving, the smoke wouldn’t not be an issue anywhere on the boat.

    If you look at Ngrams from the 19th century onward, the term “highfalutin” was used more often within literary criticism than anywhere else. I could find no contemporary history of anyone using the term in relation to steamboats at all. In recent years it appears often, usually from people claiming it was a common southern reference to steamers in the old days. But I could find no actual examples at all from those old days.

    So most steamboats had round smokestacks with no “fluting” added to the top. The only people who referred to and still refer to those smokestack tops as “fluting” were/are boatbuilders and history buffs. There doesn’t appear to be any contemporary use of the word with relation to steamboats. And the explanation as to why people sitting on the upper deck right next to the smokestacks might be called “highfalutin” is historically incorrect and generally makes no sense. So until I hear some more convincing evidence, I’m guessing the origin of the term somehow coming from “high flown” is more likely, although, again, it’s not really satisfying at all.

    I did learn that calling a woman “well stacked” evidently came from steamboat jargon as well though. So that was cool!

  • Watson

    There are numerous words & phrases derived from naval activity

    Perhaps (and without evidence), this refers to the Boatswain’s Call, which was used to pass commands to the seamen. One of these calls “Piping the Side” is still used today when senior officers or royalty embark – it also features on Star Trek!

    The phrase would then be a corruption of “high fluting”

    If nothing else, the reason for the call is amusing:

  • Shannon C Yates

    Maybe the word flaunting could be the basis of falutin.

  • Mark Twain and others on the Mississippi River Boats, used the term “High Falutin” to describe the sometimes haughty or pretentious passengers on a Paddle Wheel steam boat, who paid a premium for a high-up cabins close to the pair of fluted smoke stacks on any flat bottom paddle wheeled steam boat. The cheapest passages were low to the water line and the price of passage increased with the vertical distance from the water where there was a better view of the Mississippi River and a better breeze than the stench from those passengers on the lowest deck and freeboard.
    These higher-up passengers who paid top dollar for their tickets liked to look down on the less fortunate passengers who were often on the lower rungs of society. These top tier passengers boarded first, similar to what we see on First Class ticket holders on commercial airlines today, who are seated first so they can see the tourist class passengers walk to the rear of the plane. River boat Gamblers were notorious for obtaining first class steam boat tickets so they could mingle with the first class passengers, simply because they probably had money to gamble at the card tables.
    This information was derived from My Grandmother who obtained it from her father, a civil war hero, who was born in 1844 and died in 1918.

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