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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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Gallivant and Monkeyshines

Monkeys on parade.

Dear Word Detective: I’m writing to ask about two words missing from your website. I put them in the search box, but got no return on “gallivant” and “monkeyshines.” Because I found the much rarer “hurrah’s nest” there, I shudder to think that the previous two are missing, as they seem to fall from my grandma’s lip in the same sentence. I really, really don’t want “hurrah’s nest” to be lonely. — Miss Bliss.

Oh great. Now you’ve got me anthropomorphizing phrases. I already had a touch of synesthesia. (I have hated the number 56 since I was a kid. It makes me queasy. Seriously.) So now I have to worry about words and phrases as creatures with feelings, eh? Won’t that make my investigations of their origins and histories akin to invasion of privacy? I can hardly wait to be sued by “posh,” which by definition probably has very good lawyers.

“Hurrah’s nest,” a 19th century American coinage meaning “confused mess,” is indeed rarely heard or seen today. But its origin is simply the joyous exclamation “Hurrah!”, dating back to the 17th century but used in the US in the 1800s as a noun to mean “an uproar, great commotion.” If one imagines a “hurrah” as a creature, it’s logical that it would have a very untidy home; thus “hurrah’s nest” meaning a tangled, cluttered mess.

To “gallivant” is to parade around in a very ostentatious and possibly scandalous fashion, often with members of the opposite sex (“I did not consider it right or proper that a lady … should be gallivanting about the country with those three fellows,” 1875). “Gallivant,” which first appeared in print in the early 18th century, is probably a humorous mutation of the earlier (and now antiquated) verb “to gallant,” meaning “to play the gallant or dandy; to flirt” (“Captain Jemmison went on shore to … spend his time in great dissipation … eating, dressing, dancing, gallanting,” 1809).

“Monkeyshine,” a US coinage dating back to the early 19th century meaning a prank, trick or just boisterous behavior, is one of several English words and phrases that draw parallels, usually not very negative, between human and playful simian behavior. “Monkey business,” “monkey around,” “more fun than a barrel of monkeys,” “monkey see, monkey do,” etc., all make being a monkey sound like a lot more fun than it probably is. “Monkeyshines” may land you on probation at college or even cost you your job, but you’re unlikely to land in the slammer by monkeying around (unless “monkeyshines” is used, as it sometimes is, in a sarcastic sense to mean serious ethical or legal violations).

The “shine” in “monkeyshine” is a colloquial term, also dating back to the early 19th century, with a number of meanings. “Shine” in this sense can mean “a party” (as in “tea-shine”), “a ruckus or commotion,” “a fancy for” (as in “take a shine to”), or simply “a trick or caper” (“‘I’ll boun you pulled ‘em out, some o’ your shines,’ said Aunt Chloe,” Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852). The origins of this “shine” are uncertain. It may be simply a specialized use of “shine” in the sense of “radiance.” But it may also be related to the dialectical terms “shindy” and “shinty,” both used to mean “commotion,” and both related to “shinny,” a game similar to field hockey dating back to the 17th century.

Flout / Flaunt

This just in: It depends.

Dear Word Detective: I was out at dinner with a friend of mine who is a principal at a local high school. I mentioned the ironic situation in a book that I read. This was a book on writing, and within a mere fifty pages it used the term “to flaunt the rules” about half a dozen times. I joked snootily that the author misused it, the editor and proofreaders missed it, etc. My principal friend responded, “What’s wrong with that?” and I, being the sanctimonious word jerk that I am, took it upon myself to educate him as to the difference between “flout” and “flaunt.” I then went to pee. When I returned he had his iPhone in hand and said, “Hey, the ‘flaunt the rules’ thing sounded right to me, so I checked it out.” He then proceeded to blow my verbal mind. On the screen were dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster.com, both of which listed one of the definitions of “flaunt” as “to disregard, treat with disdain.” My questions are: 1) Has the whole world gone crazy and if so, when did this start happening? and 2) Does it officially make one an 80-year old man trapped in a 30-year old man’s body when one hears oneself say, “Well, there goes the language”? Please keep me from defecting to Latin. — Dave.

Well, times change, you know. Just a few years ago, for example, I’d have been in serious trouble for letting you use the word “pee” in your question. Today nobody cares … hold on, there’s someone at the door.

OK, I’m back. Who gave my eighth-grade English teacher a Taser? Anyway, as I was saying, language is set in stone and there are certain immutable rules which must always be observed. Just kidding. Language changes constantly, often in some very annoying ways. Good luck stopping it.

To begin at the beginning, “flaunt” first appeared in the 16th century, from unknown origins, and means “to display ostentatiously” (as in “Flaunting one’s wealth”). “Flout” appeared roughly at the same time, possibly drawn from the Middle English “flouten” (literally “to play the flute,” which was used idiomatically to mean “to mock or jeer”). Today “flout” means “to treat with contemptuous disregard,” as in “Senators often flout the ethics rules.”

Use of “flaunt” to mean “disregard” began cropping up in print in the early 20th century, and it’s been driving usage mavens bonkers ever since. There is no doubt that this usage sprang from a confusion of “flaunt” with “flout,” so on that level it’s definitely an error. But it’s an understandable error, since both words depict obnoxiously arrogant public behavior, they strongly resemble each other in both form and sound, and there is even a chance that “flout” and “flaunt” may have been the same word at one time.

Now we come to a classic dilemma in English usage and lexicography. All major English usage books continue to label the substitution of “flaunt” for “flout” as a slam-dunk error. But the usage is so widespread that dictionaries would be remiss if they didn’t list the common “disregard” usage of “flaunt” as a secondary definition. The job of a dictionary is to describe how language is used, not to rap the knuckles of (or to Tase) its users.

The imperfect solution is to continue to observe the distinction yourself but not to freak out (or lapse into lecturing) when confronted with the “wrong” usage of “flaunt” to mean “disregard.” The flip side of that coin is that you should be especially careful when speaking to, or writing for, an audience that is likely to know the difference between the words. That the book on writing you mention used the disputed “flaunt” repeatedly is indeed surprising, but may be an indication that the days of “flout” are fading faster than I had thought.

Basket case

Well, that explains the guards at the Longaberger factory.

Dear Word Detective: Recently a dear friend of mine was going through a romantic breakup, and was suffering most pitifully. It occurred to me that she was a basket case. Then it occurred to me to wonder where the heck the term “basket case” comes from anyway. I used to think it was based on the practice of encouraging patients in mental hospitals to participate in craft activities such as basket weaving. Actually, I have no idea whether mental patients are actually expected to do weave baskets. I used to have a friend who remarked to me that his son always thought that prisoners in the penitentiary making license plates was just an urban legend or movie device until he got sent to one. Apparently prisoners really do make license plates! So do mental patients really weave baskets? And if so, can I take a basket-weaving class without being in danger of running afoul of Nurse Ratched? But I digress. If the term doesn’t refer to that, to what does it refer? Is it someone who’s so fallen apart he must be carried about in a basket? I must say, I think my explanation’s more interesting. Or is there an even better explanation out there? Pray enlighten me, pretty please. — Chris.

My, what a long question. Not that I’m complaining; it was fun to read. I don’t have any direct experience of mental hospitals myself (yet), but I suspect that basket weaving therapy, if it ever existed, has been replaced by something a bit more lucrative for Big Pharma. As for license plates and penitentiaries, I believe the subject was definitively covered by John Hiatt in his classic song Tennessee Plates, available on YouTube (watch a version with Sonny Landreth on slide guitar for maximum awesomeness).

In addition to the theory about “basket case” being rooted in basket-making as therapy for severely debilitated mental patients, another popular explanation traces the term to victims violently dismembered in auto accidents (requiring rescue workers to gather them up in baskets). A third theory popular on the internet traces the phrase to the baskets used as receptacles at the foot of guillotines during the French revolution. The truth, unfortunately, is just as grisly as the latter two stories.

“Basket case” first appeared in the slang of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) fighting in Europe during World War I. It was widely rumored among the soldiers that some casualties had lost all four limbs and had to be transported in “baskets” lest they roll off a standard stretcher. Given the horrific nature of combat in this conflict (the AEF alone suffered 320,000 casualties), the stories of “basket cases” were entirely plausible, but the US War Department vigorously denied that there was a single such case known to them. A 1919 US government press release cited by lexicographer Paul Dickson in his book War Slang (1994) states emphatically that “The Surgeon General of the Army … denies emphatically that there is any foundation for the stories that have been circulated in all parts of the country of the existence of basket cases in our hospitals.” But the rumors persisted, of course, and the idea of the “basket case” was further spread in 1939 by Dalton Trumbo’s antiwar novel “Johnny Got His Gun,” which focused on just such a case. A similar rumor of “basket cases” made the rounds during World War II and was denied with equal vigor by the US government.

Whether or not such “basket cases” actually existed in either war (and strongly I suspect that they did), by the 1960s “basket case” was being used almost exclusively in its modern figurative sense to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “One who is emotionally or mentally unable to cope; something that is no longer functional, especially a country that is unable to pay its debts or to feed its people” (“The real basket cases of European agriculture are the Italians and the Bavarians,” 1973).