A recent obituary of Sir Rhodes Boyson, an eccentric and thoroughly conservative former headmaster who was a junior education minister under Margaret Thatcher, described him as an early fugleman for her cause. That’s a rare word indeed.
It tends these days to be used in the sense intended in the obituary, for a person who is a staunch advocate, a cheerleader or publicist, or — as Chambers Dictionary puts it in an odd intrusion of American slang into a Scots work — a mouthpiece. An older sense is that of a person who leads by example or an exemplar. Two decades ago, Philip Howard, a fine wordsmith and intrepid explorer of the byways of language, wrote of the famous editor of the Oxford English Dictionary:
The importance of Sir James Murray’s pioneering work was recognized disgracefully late by his university, but it is now rightly recognized as fugleman for the rest of the world in lexicographical studies.
The Times, 17 May 1990.
That meaning derives directly from the original German, Flügelmann, literally “wing man”. He was a soldier of long experience, expert in the intensive drill of the old Prussian Army, who stood at the front and side of a company of soldiers to show how it should be done. The same technique was once used in the British Army, though an article in 1867 remarked that it had by then long since been done away with, only retained by a few old-fashioned yeomanry regiments such as the Gloucestershire Hussars.
That article spelled it flugelman, but for half a century it had been appearing as fugleman, which has triumphed. Why the initial fl should have proved unattractive to British ears can’t be explained: we seem happy enough with flügelhorns and flogging.