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Flummox

Q From Rob Stallard: Thanks for creating an excellent site, which is very useful and interesting. However, flummox isn’t there and everyone seems flummoxed as to its origins. Any ideas?

A Neat.

It’s certainly one of the odder-looking words in the language, with that final x. We can take the word back a couple of hundred years, but after that it’s all guesswork.

The word first appears in mainstream English in the middle of the nineteenth century. Charles Dickens is the first writer known to have used it, in his Pickwick Papers: “And my ’pinion is, Sammy, that if your governor don’t prove a alleybi, he’ll be what the Italians call reg’larly flummoxed, and that’s all about it.”

Don’t be misled by that reference to Italians, that’s just a fancy of old Mr Weller. But there’s evidence that the word is older in Scots and English dialects, in the same sense that we use it now, to be bewildered, perplexed, or puzzled, or to defeat or overcome somebody in argument (“That fair flummoxed ’im!”). At one time, Americans sometimes used it in the sense of failing or being defeated and so being exhausted or beaten, but that sense seems to have died out.

There’s also the English dialect flummock, at one time known from Yorkshire down to Gloucestershire, to go about in a slovenly or untidy manner, or to make things untidy, or to confuse, which may be a slightly older version of the same word. It might also be linked to lommock or lummox, a clumsy or stupid person, known from the same area.

That’s where the trail runs cold. The suggestion is that all these words are in some degree imitative of the noise of throwing things down noisily or untidily, so it may be associated with another dialect word flump, a heavy or noisy fall.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 20 Mar. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 20 March 2004.