“Your fine flummery tales”: WordOfTheDay
by wotty (and the OED)
I came across “flummery” in a recent, excellent Times magazine cover piece on David Simon and his new New Orleans series, “Treme” (say it with me now, truh-MAY). The article’s author records the following exchange he had with a couple of HBO execs:
“[Simon] wrote me an e-mail years ago,” Lombardo remembered, “in which he accused me of something, I didn’t know what it meant. I had to go to the dictionary. He accused me of flummery.”
“I don’t know that word!” Plepler said.
“I clearly did not. . . .”
“What is flummery?” Plepler asked him. Lombardo did an I-have-no-idea shake of the head. Plepler looked at me. “Do you know what ‘flummery’ is?”
Empty speech, I said.
“Huh,” Plepler said. “Very good.”
Indeed, the OED defines “flummery” as “fig. Mere flattery or empty compliment; nonsense, humbug, empty trifling.” But what I like about it is its primary meaning (and prior, non-figurative use) is: “1. a. ‘A kind of food made by coagulation of wheatflour or oatmeal’ (J.). Cf. SOWENS.” Following the link to “sowens” leads to the following unappetizing prospect: “1. An article of diet formerly in common use in Scotland (and some parts of Ireland), consisting of farinaceous matter extracted from the bran or husks of oats by steeping in water, allowed to ferment slightly, and prepared by boiling.” (And now I know what you’re thinking: What the hell is farinaceous? Ah, such, such are the joys of the OED: “1. Consisting or made of flour or meal,” as in “1866 LIVINGSTON Jrnl. (1873) I. xi. 278 Their farinaceous food creates a great craving for fish.” Indeed, indeed.)
Anyway, my muddled point is here it’s nice to scrape away at flummery and realise that when you’re accusing someone of empty speech you’re really accusing them of speech resembling fermented, boiled, farinaceous oat husks. But this is all so much flummery! An historic flummery “melon” pictured below. Who knew farinaceous could look so good?
1749 LADY LUXBOROUGH Let. to Shenstone 29 Nov. (1775) 143 This word flummery, you must know, Sir, means at London, flattery, and compliment. 1828 SCOTT Jrnl. 19 Feb., The proofs..are arrived..but I have had no time, saving to blot out some flummery. 1860 THACKERAY Round. Papers, Thorns in Cush. (1876) 50 These petitioners..begin with a fine flummery about the..eminent genius of the person whom they are addressing. 1891 T. HARDY Tess II. xxvi. 66 Her father..is quite..opposed to such flummery.