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Miss Hard-to-Miss

Dear Word Detective: Like many four year-olds, my daughter has an unconventional style when choosing what to wear. Recently, she appeared from her room in an outfit that even I could tell violated a whole range of aesthetic norms. Caught between not wanting to sound critical and not wanting to lie, I told her she looked flamboyant, which came out sounding as though I thought she was in danger of catching fire but was unlikely to sink (possibly accurate given what she was wearing). It seems that “flamboyant” is based on the French for “flaming” but how did it gain its English meaning? — Rhys Fogarty.

That’s a great question. I must say that you seem to have a natural talent for diplomacy; I’d never have come up with “flamboyant” in that situation. When faced with other people’s unconventional fashion choices, the best I can usually offer is something like “Well, if you’re swept overboard, you’ll be easy to find.” Incidentally, it’s amazing what people are willing to wear on TV. I saw a real estate agent on House Hunters International the other night whose apparent love for the color orange had made her look like an enormous traffic cone. Then again, I should talk. I appeared on TV many years ago in a tweed jacket that, under the lights, turned out to fluoresce in shades of orange and purple. I looked like a talking migraine.

I’m very glad you asked about “flamboyant.” Like you, I was vaguely aware that it was connected to the French “flambe” (flame), but I imagined that “flamboyant” (meaning “characterized by elaborate or colorful design” or “wildly expressive”) was simply a highly figurative reference to flames or something being on fire in some dramatic fashion. The actual story is both more concrete and more interesting.

Our English “flamboyant” is actually simply the French word “flamboyant,” the participle form of “flamboyer,” meaning “to flame.” The root of that “flamboyer” is “flambe,” and the root of that is the Latin “flamma,” meaning “flame or fire.” So “flamboyant” should simply mean “flaming” or “blazing,” but it doesn’t.

The reason is that the initial use of “flamboyant” when it first appeared in English in the 1830s was as the name of a particular Gothic architectural style that was common in France in the 15th and 16th centuries. This style, particularly evident in cathedrals and large churches of the period (especially their windows and spires), featured ornate curved or wavy lines in a shape reminiscent of flames, as well as lengthened arches and windows. Compared to the more sedate styles which had been the norm, this “flamboyant” architecture was considered by many later critics to be a bit “over the top” and florid, which led to “flamboyant” being quickly pressed into service later in the 19th century as a general adjective for anything deemed “overly elaborate” or ostentatiously showy (“That flamboyant penmanship admired by our ancestors,” 1879).

During the same period “flamboyant” was also used in a sense more in keeping with its Latin roots to describe something flamingly or otherwise brightly colored (“Whose daughters, in flamboyant ribbons, were among the belles of the parish,” 1867). “Flamboyant” today is often used in a broader sense to mean “ostentatious” or “audacious” in both good (“London bade a flamboyant and madcap farewell to the Olympic Games,” Reuters, 8/13/12) and bad senses (“[F]our brothers from rural Texas who, in the 1920s, became America’s most successful, flamboyant and notorious bank robbers,” Wall St. Journal, 7/27/12).



Dear Word Detective: I read the following in a 2010 review of a Stieg Larsson novel: “Readers in Grenada … are going to steups when they get to page 12 in … The Girl Who Played With Fire.” “Going to steups”? I’ve tried and tried to make sense of this as a typo, nada. I gather it means something like having conniptions, since the writer goes on and on about the flora of Grenada and the apparent trajectory of a hurricane. I should also mention that the review appears to be in “Trinidad and Tobago Newsday.” (And having mentioned Grenada, I should give a shout to Kirani James.) If you can make sense of this, I’d be really glad to hear it. — Charles.

Kirani who? See? I told you I didn’t watch the Olympics. (Kirani James is, of course, the remarkable young Grenadian sprinter who just won Grenada’s first gold medal at the Olympics.) I’ve actually been thinking that maybe I should pay a little attention to sports after all. You know those old WWII movies where they trip up a German spy pretending to be a GI by asking him who plays third base for the Dodgers? If I ever have to prove my loyalty by naming five NFL teams, I’m toast.

“Steups”? It’s weird. Like you, I can’t shake the impulse to try to fix what looks like a typo to some deep part of my brain. “Setups”? “Stups”? “Stoop”? Part of the cognitive problem I have with “steups” is that sentence you found uses it as a verb (“to steups”), and there aren’t very many English verbs that end in a single “s.” Furthermore, a search of the Oxford English Dictionary shows that there is no common English word containing the sequence “steu,” apart from derivatives of Louis Pasteur’s name (e.g., “pasteurization”), a couple of weird biological terms, and “Steuben” used attributively to mean a product of that glass-maker.

Long story short, it turns out that “steups” is a Caribbean English slang word, Caribbean English being not one language per se, but dozens of dialects of English spoken throughout the Caribbean and on the eastern coast of Central America. Closely tracking the history of the region, Caribbean English generally follows British English in style and spelling, but includes words influenced by African languages as well as by Spanish.

In the case of “steups,” however, the source is not any particular language but the apparently universal human capacity for expressing disapproval or exasperation. According to, an online dictionary of West Indian terms, “steups” is onomatopoeic, or echoic, in origin; it’s an imitation of “A sucking noise made with the tongue pressed against the teeth. It is usually an expression of annoyance, frustration, or contempt.” Other regional terms for the same action are “cheups” and “kiss teet” (“kissing one’s teeth”). In standard English this action would probably correspond to “clucking” (“Betty’s grandmother clucked her disapproval when she announced her engagement to the local anarchist”), after the sound a hen uses to keep her chicks in line. There must be something fairly shocking on page 12.

Interestingly, the comments on the “steups” page at indicate that “steups” (and perhaps its variants) is also widely used to mean “Kiss my behind!” (to put it euphemistically). Perhaps this use as an imprecation originally developed as a retort to one too many “steups” from a stuffy relative.

Hat trick

The truth is that nobody understands cricket.

Dear Word Detective: I have been watching the Olympics up here in Canada, and I keep hearing about “hat tricks.” One of the Canadian women scored three goals in an important soccer match — hat trick. Another, more prominent, athlete won three gold medals — again a hat trick. So I understand that it refers to an individual doing three of something. But what does this have to do with hats? — Harold Russell.

Um, is it safe? Is it safe? I know I sound like the evil Nazi dentist in Marathon Man, but I’ve been hiding from the Olympics for, gosh, must be a couple of months now. I haven’t looked at the TV news or most of the internet at all, but the few headlines that managed to sneak through my blindfold (metaphorical, of course) tended to indicate that the Olympics had taken up permanent residence, like the second cousin who crashes on your couch for a few weeks in July and is somehow still there on New Year’s Eve. So is it over? What year is it?

Speaking of years, I just checked and it turns out that the last time I answered a question about “hat trick” was way back in 1997, which was before Facebook or Twitter or any of the other things I wish it were still before so we could stop them. The slightly mortifying aspect of the fifteen years since I wrote that column is that I still don’t entirely understand the particulars of the term’s origins. I know where and when it first appeared, but the exact situation it described remains as opaque to me today as it was then. You’ll understand in a moment.

“Hat trick” is a term used in sports to describe a single player or athlete scoring three goals (or whatever) in one game or match. So if I were to score three goals in quick succession in a hockey game (after first learning to skate, in my case), that would be hailed by the gang in the broadcast booth as a “hat trick.” The term is also used by extension for a threefold success in nearly any other activity, from selling three used cars in one afternoon to getting yourself arrested three times in a row for mopery in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is very strict about mopery. Don’t ask.

The term “hat trick” first appeared in Britain, in the late 19th century, and it comes from the game of cricket, which is where things get a little bit sticky, explanation-wise, because I have never understood cricket. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a “hat trick” means “The feat of a bowler who takes three wickets by three successive balls: originally considered to entitle him to be presented by his club with a new hat or some equivalent.” I suppose a really good player would have had to rent a room to store all those nifty hats; that’s probably why they eventually switched to rewarding athletic success with buckets of money.

“Hat tricks” are noted in other sports as well, most notably horse racing, where a “hat trick” consists of a single jockey winning three races in one day. In hockey, there are two kinds of “hat tricks,” the simple sort being one player scoring three goals in one game. When a hockey player scores three goals in succession with no other scores interrupting, it’s called a “natural hat trick.” There’s also a “hat trick” in baseball, which consists of a player hitting a single, a double, a triple and a home run all in one game. This sort of hat trick is, unsurprisingly, quite rare, so it would be slightly tacky on such an occasion to point out that “hat trick” in this sense describes four, not three, events.

I should probably note, just for the record, that “hat trick” can also mean, according to the OED, “Any trick with a hat, e.g., one performed by a conjurer.” I’m hoping there’s a special term for a magician who manages to produce three rabbits from the same hat. On such an occasion, of course, a new hat would probably be very welcome.