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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) an untrustworthy or inept political speaker

world microphones at a political news conference

Here’s the story behind a word that first appeared on the HH Twitter feed back in June: a flapdoodler is an untrustworthy or inept political speaker.

Etymologically, a flapdoodler is someone who deals in flapdoodle—a word that has essentially been used to mean “nonsense” or “idle talk” since the early nineteenth century. Its origins in turn, however, are a mystery.

“An arbitrary formation”, says the Oxford English Dictionary, while pointing to an earlier and equally arbitrary seventeenth century word for nonsense, fadoodle, as a possible inspiration. Other dictionaries concur, but that hasn’t stopped them from breaking cover with their own imaginative etymological theories: in his Origins of English Words (1984), for instance, philologist Joseph Shipley suggested that flapdoodle might be intended to combine the sounds of “flapping wings and [a] rooster crow”—perhaps in allusion to a preening, empty-headed coxcomb. <INSERT CONTEMPORARY EXAMPLE HERE.>

As a seemingly randomly invented word, it may come as little surprise that flapdoodle has been used in a number of equally random senses over the years.

As far back as the late seventeenth century, it was apparently being used in English slang for what dictionaries euphemistically refer to as the membrum virile. By the early 1800s, it had become the name of a fictitious foodstuff supposedly fed to idiots:

“The gentleman has eaten no small quantity of flapdoodle in his lifetime.”
“What’s that, O’Brien?” replied I. “I never heard of it.”
“Why, Peter,” rejoined he, “it’s the stuff they feed fools on.”
Frederick Marryat, Peter Simple (1823)

But it is as another word for “rubbish” that flapdoodle has established itself most firmly in the language in the mid 1800s, alongside a handful of less familiar derivatives like flapdoodlish, flapdoodlism, and a verb form, to flapdoodle, meaning simply “to talk nonsense”.

It’s from the latter of these that our inept flapdoodler eventually emerged, with the word’s political overtones appearing towards the turn of the century: according to one 1905 Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English, a flapdoodler is “a braggart agitator ... that makes the eagle squeal.”

To make the eagle squeal, it goes on to explain, is an American expression “applied to anything which provokes national indignation”. <INSERT ANOTHER CONTEMPORARY EXAMPLE HERE.>

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