Sunday, May 17, 2009

WORD OF THE DAY: Flibbertigibbet

I found this one reading Harrison Salisbury’s introduction to At the Barricades: the Memoirs of Rebel Journalist Wilfred Burchett (MacMillan: Australia, 1981). Salisbury assures us Burchett was not “in any sense a flibbertigibbet.” From the context I feared this wonderful appearing word might mean something like the dreadful, much tossed about phrase of T.V. and radio talkers: “flip flopper,” but I was happily proven to be wrong. The first place I checked was my handy Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (G & C Merriam, 1976), and learned a flibbertigibbet is “a silly flighty person.” As usual my The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: Thumb Index Edition (Clarendon Press, 1993) gave me much more. According to this two volume, if not quite exhaustive, set a flibbertigibbet is “a gossip or chatterer. Now” usually “a flighty, irresponsible, or frivolous person.” The “shorter” O.E.D. goes on to tell that flibbertigibbet is a name for “a devil or fiend” -- “after a character in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth, “an impish mischievous child; a restless person” usually “grotesque in appearance.” This source goes on to quote both Elizabeth Bowen and O. Henry using this fine somewhat onomatopoeic word, which is probably derived from imitation “of meaningless chatter.” Considering I have read most of what Bowen wrote, perhaps I came across this word at some earlier time and simply forgot all about the experience. I hope that possibility and the time I have wasted discussing this does not mean I am a flibbertigibbet. It is hard to know.