A quick fillip of a word, like flicking a skirt or feeling a shirt. There is even a wink of an i – you may see it there in the letters, but it is not to be heard. Rather, there are four sounds here, two voiceless to start – for with the f whispering in its ear, the l prefers to whisper too, only finding its voice at the very onset of the next sound – and then a syllabic r, that retroflex liquid (or a central vowel for the non-rhotic, if not non-erotic), and then a t, a touch that lingers, the glottis stopped, but turning to a quick tap or stop if another word catches it in the act. It has such an insubstantial sound, too, no depth or commitment, like a butterfly, flipping, flitting. And indeed its sound is what has made it. It was first a verb for a fillip, a flick, or a blurting out, created by onomatopoeia; from these sudden and passing motions it extended to social behaviour. Now flirting is a form of sport in which the goal may or may not be to score; it’s a toe-dipping, a quick sipping, to get a little kick or to pick up a chick or bloke. And yet it can keep such serious company: after the obvious girls, women and man, its next most common objects are idea, danger and disaster. Ah, be careful what you wink at… it may follow you home.
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