August 06, 2007

Flouting facts in The New Yorker

Here's something that surprised me quite a bit: a flagrant malapropism in The New Yorker (see it here, in an article about Avraham ("Avrum") Burg by David Remnick):

One subject that especially infuriated Shavit, and provoked countless letters to the editor, e-mail screeds, and editorial-page rebuttals, was Burg's depiction of the European Union as an almost irresistibly attractive "biblical utopia" and his flouting of the fact that he holds a French passport, because his wife is French-born, and voted in the recent French elections. When Shavit asked Burg if he recommended that all Israelis acquire a second passport, Burg replied, "Whoever can"—a moment of determined cosmopolitanism. Shavit sarcastically called Burg "the prophet of Brussels."

That use of flouting is a very clear case of a famous confusion. Remnick means flaunting.

Flouting something is treating it with contemptuous disregard (often it will be a rule or standard or convention). Flaunting something is displaying it ostentatiously or impudently (often something like wealth or privilege). Confusion between these words is very common (relative to their comparatively low overall frequency of occurrence); MWCDEU provides (as usual) an excellent article surveying the history.

I think (I have no quantitative backup) it is more usual for flaunt to be used where flout was meant, and I can see why there is confusion in that direction: you can boastfully exhibit your contempt for normal standards, and thus flaunt your flouting of them. Webster's actually gives "flout" as one of the meanings of flaunt, citing Louis Untermeyer as having talked about someone having "flaunted the rules", which is exactly the kind of use I am saying I can understand the motivation of.

But that is not relevant here, where flout has been used for flaunt. It is absolutely clear what Remnick means: Burg flaunts the fact of his French nationality and passport and electorally franchised status. He stresses it proudly, and recommends that other Israeli Jews should have a second nationality if they can. In no way does Burg exhibit contempt for his French status; the charge people make against him in Israel is quite the opposite — that he flaunts his Frenchness and flouts the notion of being an Israeli. Remnick simply dipped into his mental lexicon and came up with the wrong word, and there's no possible exculpatory argument (unless you take the view that the linguistic change train has left the station and these lexemes have now merged in educated Standard English, which I do not). And no one in the New Yorker editorial office spotted it. That's quite unusual, in this highly selective and very carefully edited magazine.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 6, 2007 12:45 PM