It means a frivolous, flighty, or excessively talkative person. It’s a fine word to throw out, in the appropriate circumstances, though there’s a risk of tripping over all those syllables. That’s no doubt why it has had so many spellings.
The original seems to have been recorded about 1450 as fleper-gebet, which may have been just an imitation of the sound of meaningless speech (babble and yadda-yadda-yadda have similar origins). It started out to mean a gossip or chattering person, but quickly seems to have taken on the idea of a flighty or frivolous woman. A century later it had become respectable enough for Bishop Latimer to use it in a sermon before King Edward VI, though he wrote it as flybbergybe.
The modern spelling is due to Shakespeare, who borrowed it from one of the 40 fiends listed in a book by Samuel Harsnet in 1603. In King Lear Edgar uses it for a demon or imp: “This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet. .. He gives the web and the pin, squints the eye, and makes the harelip; mildews the white wheat, and hurts the poor creature of earth”.
There has been yet a third sense, taken from a character of Sir Walter Scott’s in Kenilworth, for a mischievous and flighty small child. But despite Shakespeare and Scott, the most usual sense is still the original one.
Search World Wide Words
Recently added or updated
By hook or by crook; Polish off; Loggerhead; Lame duck; But and ben; Logomaniac; Type louse; Corium; Lie Doggo; Fewmet; Dingbat; Kibosh; Caucus; Oryzivorous; Kick the bucket; Satisficer; Beside oneself; Words of the Year 2015; Peradventure; Sconce; Orchidelirium; How’s your father; Goon; Emoji; Thank your mother for the rabbits; Nonplussed; Bob’s-a-dying; Methinks; Bill of goods.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.
Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!