flummox

Oh, flip, you’ve fumbled this one – a flood of flim-flammery has left you flailing like a lummox and you’ve made a right bollix of it. You’re sure to flop and fall flat on your face; you’ve lost your moxie and are in line for full mockery. You don’t know what to do or say. You’re nonplussed, you’re confounded, you’re… words not… um, fail… And your wit and wicked tongue make like a floppy-footed clown all in white gown with flying feathers carrying a full stack of cake boxes, tripping on a filament and falling feet over fundament down a small set of stairs: flummox!

Some are flummoxed by the word flummox. What does it mean? Mainly what I have said: ‘bewilder, confuse, confound, nonplus’. Very often seen as the adjectival past participle flummoxed. The Oxford English Dictionary’s etymology notes that “The formation seems to be onomatopoeic, expressive of the notion of throwing down roughly and untidily.”

That sounds right, doesn’t it? The sometimes fluid but sometimes fluttery and floppy fl, the soft and heavy umm, the ox with its echo of a pointy-horned bovine and its feel of things landing and breaking or dispersing…

Of course, these are the things we’re used to in English. Other languages do not necessarily have the conventionalized feel of fluids or fluttering with /fl/ and the various other overtones throughout this word. Use it with a speaker of another tongue and expect them to be flummoxed.

One particularly fun part of this word is that other so-similar word lummox (naming an ungainly lout). Surely flummox is from the sound of a lummox falling flat or something like that, no? But there’s no evidence of that chain in the formation. Both were formed in England, both have related verbs with –ock instead of –ox, and both show up in the literature in the early 1800s, but lummox showed up in East Anglia (the lump on the lower right side of England, wherein Cambridge and Norwich may be found), while flummox showed up in Hertfordshire, Gloucestershire, Cheshire, and Sheffield – an arc up the mid-left side of England starting just above London and skirting the Welsh border. In New World terms that may all seem close (the distance of a day trip between two major cities), but the dialectal differences in England are immediately obvious to any listener. And the etymological record is not always replete; in such colloquial cases, it can be quite, um, bedeviling… confounding… erm… yes, flummoxing.

Thanks to Roberto Blizzard for mentioning flummox on Facebook a while back.

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