Flaunting party discipline, or flouting it, whatever

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I'm afraid the flaunt/flout distinction may be a lost cause. Yesterday in the UK parliament three Labour Party whips voted against the instructions they were supposed to be enforcing on behalf of the leader of their party, and three times already this morning (the radio has been on since 5:30) I have heard a parliamentary report on the BBC's flagship Radio 4 program Today in which a reporter referred to party whips "who were supposed to impose party discipline, rather than flaunt it."

He meant "rather than flout it," of course. To flaunt something is to show it off, like a new fur coat or other signs of wealth. Violating rules is called flouting. But the gradual collapsing of these two verbs has now been going on for a century. In fact next year, in October 2018, we shall see the centenary of the first case of the error ever spotted by the folks at the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage observatory:

They flaunt his every title to affection or respect… (Yale Review, October 1918)

(The context apparently supports the idea that they were violating his entitlement to affection or respect, not ostentatiously displaying it.) The MWDEU article is fascinating. Very occasionally, cases have been found of people using flout to mean flaunt (they give a couple of citations), which they say is certainly an error. But in general the verb switch is nearly always in the other direction. And it's very frequent, yet still condemned by many people who in other respects are quite liberal.

MWDEU points out that the crossover happens because both involve bold, public behavior of a potentially deprecatable kind, and there are actions that could be described with either verb: if you go out in your new fur coat wearing nothing underneath it, and occasionally flash it open to shock people, you are simultaneously flaunting your coat (and your naked body), and flouting the indecent exposure laws, and flaunting your flouting of them. Perhaps that gives a hint of why the error is not entirely inexplicable.

Note, however, that I'm a conservative in this matter: no matter how much explanatory justification or exculpation there might be, I wouldn't dream of using one verb for the other. I don't approve of the crossover at all. I'm not one of the Happiness Boys. If you also disapprove, then I'm right with you.

However, though you can peeve all you want, it will probably have about as much effect as shaking your fist at a train that has already left the station. Once BBC Radio 4 is allowing the switch in parliamentary reports and nobody corrects it,* the jig is up, the towel has been thrown in, game over. Keep your own usage pure if it gives you a warm feeling in your tummy, but don't expect the anglophone speech community at large to follow the same practice.

* [Note added later] Stan Carey tells me that Temple Grandin's memoir Emergence contains "flaunting the rules", and Mary Flanagan's book of short stories The Blue Woman has "flaunting international law". So the flaunt for flout substitution is appearing in printed books.

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