or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Flair Game

As seen in a knitting pattern yesterday:

"Be sure to work tight, firm bind-offs so that the ribs do not flair out."

And if you Google "road flair" you will see far more instances of it than you would have thought possible, and if you Google "had a flare for" you will become even more depressed.

Come on, people. It isn't that hard. "Flair" is a noun that has a tiny cluster of meanings, all of which point to talent and style. One can have a flair for decorating, or one can have flair. "Flare" serves all other meanings of the homophone: as a verb it means to burst into flames or to expand outwards (which is what the pattern-writer was trying to get at), while as a noun it means a signaling device, a burst of flame, and an opening outwards, among other things. (There's a Canadian fashion magazine called Flare: since "flair" suggests fashion, I can't tell if its naming was a stupid mistake or if the sense of "burning brightly" or "expanding outwards" was intended.)

I'm sorry to be a broken record, but the knitting typo is what you get when people 1) don't read enough and 2) use a spell-checker under the flawed assumption that it will correct their writing. And then it's left to people like me to pick up the pieces, or at least grouse about them in public.

But I hate to end with a grouse, so let's take a walk through the tangled underbrush of etymology. "Flair" is related to "fragrant", of all things; it comes from an old French word, "flairer", meaning "to scent", which is descended from Latin "fragrare", "to emit an odour." Since "flair" is a relative of "fragrant", how beautifully symmetrical it would have been if "flare" had been a cousin to "flagrant"! After all, they're both related to things burning (and even though "flagrant" has lost its overt sense of burning, it readily brings to mind the related "conflagration"). Alas, it isn't so: nobody knows where "flare" came from.

But "flagrant" takes us to the phrase "in flagrante delicto", which literally means "as the crime is blazing" but, preceded by "caught", commonly means "in the act of having [illicit] sex." If you aren't thoroughly acquainted with Latin, doesn't "delicto" make you think of "delectable"? It's unrelated, of course, but it (along with "delight" and "delicious", which words "delicto" also calls to mind, in look and sound if not meaning) has its roots in the Latin "lacere", "to entice". And I can hardly believe this myself, but the English word "entice" almost certainly comes from a Latin word which means "to set afire" or "to add fuel to a fire".


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