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Flatterers and bletherskites

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Almost exactly twelve years ago, on August 2, 2006 (see this post), when the world and this blog were much younger, I mentioned some problems pertaining to the etymology of the verb flatter. Since that time, I have written several posts on kl– and sl-words and discussed sound symbolism more than once. There is little doubt that some sounds evoke steady associations in our mind. Such associations are akin to but not identical with those covered by the name of sound imitation (or onomatopoeia), and they are, in a way, mysterious, for why should kl-, for example, make us think of cloying, cleaving, and cluttering, while sl- conjures up an image of things slick, slimy, and sleazy? After all, clever refers to a laudable quality, and there is nothing reprehensible in slumbering or making haste slowly. Whatever the cause, fl-words often suggest the idea of flickering ~ flittering ~ fluttering (and flowing, but flowing is not among our immediate concerns). The origin of Engl. flatter has bothered etymologists for centuries. The main difficulty consists in the embarrassment of riches strewn before them. Wherever one looks, some verb beginning with fl– offers itself as a sought-after etymon. The idea of borrowing looks especially tempting because flatter appeared in English only in the fourteenth century and ousted its older synonyms. Latin flare “to blow,” flatare “to make big,” and flagitare “to demand, importune,” with French flatter “to flatter,” as well as Icelandic flaðra “to fawn on one” (ð = Engl. th in this) and fletja “to roll (dough),” offer themselves as possible sources of the English word. It is hard to prove anything in etymology, but two arguments speak decisively again borrowing Engl. flatter from French. First, French flatter would have lost –er in Middle English and become flat (this circumstance was already clear to the OED’s great editor James A. H. Murray). Two historic events happened on August 2: in 1790, the first census began in. . .

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News source: Linguistics – OUPblog

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