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Flimflam / Claptrap

We’ll always have Flapdoodle.

Dear Word Detective:  In my research for a Civil War novel I’m doing, I ran across a quotation of Robert E. Lee’s (back when he was a colonel) in which he referred to an unreliable report as “All flam and claptrap.”  Naturally, I thought of you.  The sense of the term is “nonsense,” but I find the origins nowhere.  “Claptrap” was a favorite epithet of my father’s, but “flam”?  Perhaps from “flim-flam,” which leaves me with “flim,” also obscure.  Assistance please. — Barry Longyear.

I think it’s notable, and weirdly inspiring, that some of our most colorful English words are used to mean “nonsense.”  Just a quick skip through Roget’s Thesaurus under “nonsense” produces babble, blather, blatherskite, gabble, gibberish, jabber, jabberwocky, twaddle, balderdash, bunkum, claptrap, drivel, piffle, poppycock, rigmarole, tommyrot, applesauce, baloney, bilge, hooey, and malarkey (although for some reason they left out my favorite, “horsefeathers”).

Your hunch tracing “flam” to “flim-flam” (or “flimflam,” as it’s most often spelled today) is right on the mark.  “Flim-flam” dates back to the 16th century, and from the beginning meant “nonsense or idle talk” as well as “humbug, a flimsy pretense or deception.”  The distinctive trait  to “flim-flam” is its transparency;  a “flim-flam” is not a sophisticated scam or con but rather the sort of shallow trick that a reasonable person wouldn’t fall for.  As a verb, for example, “flim-flam” in the US came to mean specifically “to distract or confuse a customer so as to be able to shortchange him.”  The origin of “flimflam” is somewhat uncertain, but the “flim” part may be based on a English dialectical word of Scandinavian origin similar to the Old Norse “flim” (a lampoon or mockery).  Such a Norse origin of “flim,” if true, would be a legacy of the Viking invasions of Britain in the 8th to 11th centuries.

The form “flim-flam” is what linguists call “reduplication,” the repetition of a word with a slight change for emphasis (e.g., whim-wham, okey-dokey, etc.).  Oddly enough, although the “flam” part is simply a variant of “flim,” it apparently achieved escape velocity and became a word in its own right almost as soon as “flim-flam” appeared.  Thus we find “flam” being used as early as the 17th century (“All pretences to the contrary are nothing but cant and cheat, flam and delusion,” 1692) as a simple synonym for “flim-flam.”  This makes Lee’s use of “flam” in that quotation entirely logical.

“Claptrap,” incidentally, has a wonderfully sardonic origin.  It’s theater slang from the 18th century, originally meaning a line or speech in a play shamelessly designed to elicit (“trap”) applause (“claps”) from the audience.  A stirring speech by a character praising the national spirit, for instance, would almost certainly rouse the crowd, but was considered cheap “claptrap”  by many playwrights and actors (“There will be no clap-traps, nothing about ‘Britannia rule the Waves’,” 1799).  By the 19th century, “claptrap” had broadened from meaning “cheap, showy language” to its current meaning of “nonsense, silly rubbish.”

Pot Licker

A cook’s best friend, however.

Dear Word Detective:  I have a friend that sometimes calls people “pot lickers.”  I don’t think it sounds very good. What does it mean? — Darlene.

It certainly doesn’t sound good, but that’s the whole point.  As an insult or derogatory term, “pot licker” has a nice ring to it, and since most people will have no idea of what it means, there’s the added sense of superiority that comes from confusing your adversary as well as insulting him or her.  I knew a fellow once who would occasionally refer to politicians he didn’t like as “pantaloons.”  Had there been any of his targets within earshot, they would have  understood the slur only if they had known that “pantaloon” is the Anglicized form of “Pantalone,” a stock character in the Italian “commedia dell’arte” (comedy theater) of the 16th century.  “Pantalone” was usually depicted as a demented old man clad in short, loose-fitting trousers, an image Shakespeare invoked in his play As You Like It (“… the lean and slippered pantaloon … his big manly voice, turning again toward childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound.”).  That may seem like a pretty obscure insult, but Pantalone was famous enough that his name, filtered through “pantaloon,” eventually gave us the English word “pants.”

As far as I know, Shakespeare never called anyone a “pot licker,” but I suspect he would have jumped at the chance had he been familiar with the insult.  Applied to a human being, “pot licker” means a low and contemptible person, one with no pride and no principles.  A “pot licker” is a bottom-feeder, a low-life whose career ambitions extend no further up the food chain than to be a “toady” (a fawning sycophant or yes-man, so-called after the “toad-eaters” who, back in the 17th century, actually ate toads as part of a traveling medicine man’s demonstration of bogus “antidotes” to poison).  “Pot lickers” give hangers-on a bad name.

As a personal insult, “pot licker” dates back to the 1830s and tends to be heard mostly in the Southern US, though it is apparently also common in the Caribbean.   In its literal and original sense, however, “pot licker” was not a person at all.  A “pot licker” is a mongrel dog, most often a nondescript hound mix, no good for hunting and generally considered worthless.  (I’m just reporting.  No dog, of course, is worthless, and several of my best friends have been mutts.)  The key to a dog being considered a “pot licker” is its timidity and complete lack of spirit, including an unwillingness to bristle or snarl even when abused.  The only reward such a dog deserves, in this view, is to lick cooking pots clean after the meal is served.  Compared to a well-trained hunting dog, considered very valuable in such circles, being a “pot licker” is about as low as a dog can go.

While being called a “pot licker” is certainly a serious insult to a human, it’s arguably not quite as bad as being labeled a “boot licker.”  First appearing in the mid-19th century, “boot licker,” meaning a person so subservient that they figuratively lick the boots of their master, carries even stronger connotations of abject servility than “pot licker.”


Not even close.

Dear Word Detective:  “The Perfect Summer” by Juliet Nicolson, page 80, reads:  “Lady Louisa Anson, an intimidating guest at Viceregal Lodge in (Victorian) Ireland, was so rude to the Viceroy’s children they stole the name card from her bedroom door and slid it into the holder on the door of the water closet. The lady was not amused when the maid persistently misdelivered her morning tea.  The story spread and from then on people needing a discreet reason to excuse themselves would announce they were off to visit Lady Loo or as it became known simply ‘The Loo’.”  Could this be true? — Roger Baker.

Absolutely not.  I’ve removed a few of the question marks you appended to your query for emphasis, but your incredulity is richly justified.  That story is nonsense.  I must say, however, that it is curiously attractive because it exhibits several of the key elements of a successful urban legend.  There’s the presence of the aristocracy, always a winner.  More importantly, the snobby rich person gets her comeuppance at the hands of the downtrodden (albeit also rich) children she has wronged.  And the whole tale centers on the socially taboo subject of toilets.  No wonder the author was suckered by that story.

That looks like an interesting book, by the way.  It’s a portrait of the summer of 1911, three years before the start of World War I, focusing on the upper crust of British society, and written by the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.  But did guests at a Viceroy’s mansion really have their rooms marked by little name cards on the door?  How tacky.  I wonder if they also wore those “Hi, My name is” things at dinner.

“Loo” is, of course, slang, primarily British, for the toilet, restroom or bathroom (or whatever your favorite euphemism might be).  The origin of “loo” has been hotly, and often quite creatively, debated since the word first appeared.  One popular theory suggests that servants in the 17th and 18th century, emptying chamberpots out the window, warned passersby in the street below with the shout “Gardez l’eau!” (French for “Watch out for the water!”), which was pronounced “gardy loo” in Britain and later shortened to “loo.”

This story, however, like many of the more colorful origins proposed, runs aground on the fact that “loo” first appeared in print relatively recently, in 1922 (in the form of a joke in “Ulysses” by James Joyce: “O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Watercloset.”).  The 1922 vintage of “loo” also casts doubt on Nicolson’s account, since it is set no later than 1911.

There are two theories, however, that should be considered more likely.  The French euphemism “lieux” (pronounced “loo,” from “lieux d’aisance,” meaning “places of comfort” or “comfort stations”) might well have been picked up by British soldiers in France during World War I (1914-17).  The period between the war and the first appearance of “loo” in print would be about right for armed services slang to percolate into general usage.

On the other hand, James Joyce may, in that quote from “Ulysses,” have been onto the actual origin of “loo.”  It may simply be a joke based on the use of “Waterloo” (as in “Battle of Waterloo”) as a punning take on “water closet.”  Such a linkage would make “loo” similar to  British rhyming slang, where a nonsense phrase rhyming with the “real” word (“plates of meat” for “feet”) is abbreviated and obscured still further by dropping the bit that actually rhymes (leaving us with the mysterious “plates” as slang for “feet”).  “Water closet” thus, in this theory,  became “Waterloo,” and then just “loo.”