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Flibbertigibbet

Pronounced /ˈflɪbətɪˈdʒɪbɪt/Help with pronunciation

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.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 30 Oct. 1999

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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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-fli1.htm
Last modified: 30 October 1999.