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Flapdoodler

10 Nov 2017

If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all (Pixabay) 

 

It’s not that HH is actively trying to make all of its Words of the Week political. It’s just that when politicians behave the way they have recently, frankly, it’s hard not to. 

 

For those of you not up to speed with events here in the UK, here’s a recap. This week, Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel was forced to resign from her Cabinet position after it emerged that she had breached ministerial code by arranging several secret and unauthorized meetings with Israeli officials (including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) while on holiday last August. 

 

Also this week, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson faced fresh calls to resign after misinformed comments he made last week regarding Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe—a British-Iranian charity worker currently imprisoned in Tehran on a spurious charge of spying—led to calls in Iran for her jail sentence to be increased. When pushed to apologise for his “gaffe”, Johnson this week doubled down: “It is simply untrue,” he commented, “that there is any connection whatever between my remarks ... and the legal proceedings under way against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Tehran”. The following day, Iranian state broadcaster IRIB announced that Johnson’s statement was tantamount to a “confession” that “repudiated all the claims ... from British media and government officials who were saying Nazanine Zaghari-Ratcliffe had come to Iran for humanitarian purposes”. But nope, nothing to do with him at all.

 

We could go on, but alas, it’d all get just too depressing. All that remains to say is that this week’s Word of the Week is 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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