For Valentine’s Day, from HH’s Accidental Dictionary, here’s the history of why “flirting” originally meant “sneering”...
When the word flirt first fluttered into life in the language back in the late Middle Ages, it originally referred to a sudden, short twitching or jerking movement. It’s thought that the word itself might even have been coined onomatopoeically—like flick, flip and flit—to represent precisely the same kind of flittering, flickering movement to which it referred.
Back in the mid 1500s, flirt was being used to denote all kinds of hurried movements, from a hard rap or tap with the knuckles to a sharp flick with a finger; from a sudden blurted exclamation to a rapid dart from one place to another, like a bird hopping through the branches. But the earliest of all these swift and “flirting” movements was a very surprising one given its meaning today: originally, a flirt was a scornful, derisive sneer.
In the mid sixteenth century, flirting referred to what we would now more likely call “turning your nose up”; a flirt itself, meanwhile, was a jesting, jibing comment or witticism, or else a nit-picking, carping complainer—the kind of comment or commentator that might be accompanied by a mocking, lip-curling sneer.
This meaning endured right through to the mid 1600s, when flirting finally began to gain its romantic overtones:
But now our fears tempestuous grow,
And cast our hopes away;
Whilst you, regardless of our woe,
Sit careless at a play:
Perhaps, to permit some happier man
To kiss your hand, or flirt your fan,
With a fa, la, la, la, la . . .
That’s a verse from an old sea shanty, “To all you ladies now at land”, said to have been written by an anonymous English sailor during the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54), a naval conflict that stemmed from trade disputes between England and the Netherlands.
The song provides us with the earliest written evidence of the expression “to flirt a fan”, which once meant simply “to flutter or quickly open and close a handheld fan”. But if legend is to be believed, the fan in question isn’t being used to cool its owner down. It’s being used to send a secret romantic message.
Among young Georgian women, hand-held fans were reputedly much more than a mere fashion accessory, and could instead be used to silently convey messages between sweethearts and suitors. Various combinations of fluttering movements or “flirts” could communicate everything from reciprocation (sliding a closed fan down the chest = “I love you”) to rejection (lowering an open fan so that it pointed at the ground = “I hate you”).
Whether such a standardized “fan language” was ever actually employed is debatable, but it was nevertheless through the “flirting” of fans—and the knowing glances of young Georgian romantics—that the word flirt began to be associated with love and lust.
This change in meaning was clearly in place by the early eighteenth century, when the playwright John Gay defined a flirt as “one that gives himself all the airs of making love in public” in 1732. Samuel Johnson defined it as “a pert young hussy” in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. And by the late eighteenth century, flirt was finally starting to be used as a verb, to mean “to play at courtship”—or, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “to make love without serious intentions”.
By the late 1800s, all earlier meanings of the word had begun to die away, so that by the turn of the century the modern meaning of flirting had fully established itself in the language.
The days of fluttering hand-held fans and glances across ballrooms might be long gone, but flirting remains with us.