Thursday, August 22, 2019

'Only Fools and Flutterpates'

Like Yiddish, English is rich in words for the foolish and intellectually attenuated. This only makes sense, as linguistic supply always answers to worldly demand, and we can never have enough words for run-of-the-mill idiocy. I remember when the late critic Irving Howe described former U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato as a “chowder-head,” a word he presumably borrowed from Moe Howard. And of course in The Bank Dick, Egbert Sousé (W.C. Fields) advises his prospective son-in-law, Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton): “Don’t be a luddy-duddy! Don’t be a mooncalf! Don’t be a jabbernowl! You’re not those, are you?” I have a friend who favors fuck-knuckle (Hyphen or one word? Please advise) and another who prefers the monosyllabic simp. A prosecuting attorney I knew in Indiana invariably called liberals “bed-wetters.”

Now I can add another word to my opprobrious collection: flutter-pate. You’ll find it in the first paragraph of Max Beerbohm’s “A Defence of Cosmetics”:Indeed, indeed, there is charm in every period, and only fools and flutterpates do not seek reverently for what is charming in their own day.” The essay was first published in the first edition of The Yellow Book, in 1894, and collected in Beerbohm’s first book, The Works of Max Beerbohm (1896), under the title “The Pervasion of Rouge.” The OED primly defines flutter-pate as “a flighty or light-headed person.” The only citation is Beerbohm’s, though it’s credited not to him but to The Yellow Book.

Flutter-pate is attractive because it doesn’t sound derogatory and most of those for whom it’s appropriate won’t know what it means.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Anything descriptive of the head is a winner: knucklehead, bonehead, lemonhead, skillethead.