Daily Archives: March 24, 2010


I was giving a class in word tasting, and from a book by L. Frank Baum I had pulled a real winner – not only a flavourful word that trips a pretty fillip on the tongue, but one signifying something that could well use a word like this to signify it. I wrote it on the blackboard: flutterbudget.

I turned to the class. “Let’s all say this together.”

Most of those in attendance obliged, if perfunctorily. One hand shot up. I quickly glanced at my diagram of who was sitting where. “Yes, Eleanor?”

“I don’t think we should say that.”

I blinked. “Well, why not?”

“It just sounds vulgar.”

I was momentarily taken aback – as were, from what I could tell, most of the others in the class. “It’s not vulgar,” I said. “It doesn’t mean anything vulgar. If it were vulgar, you would know it. And we can’t have phonetic profiling. There’s no value in avoiding words just because they sound like something bad. You’d cross out a huge portion of the English vocabulary. …Although I can’t really think exactly what vulgar thing you think this sounds like, aside from its starting with f and having an ‘uh’ sound in it.”

“If we said this on the street,” Eleanor protested, “someone might think we were saying something rude.”

“They might think that no matter what you say if they don’t understand it,” I said, and noticed another hand up. “Brian?”

“I think it sounds like flibbertigibbet,” Brian said. “Or… butterfly.”

Fussbudget,” piped up a voice from the back that I determined was Anna.

I put one finger on the tip of my nose and pointed the other at her. “Bingo. Same budget. Slightly different sense.”

Another hand, at the back. I glanced quickly… “Kayley?”

“A fussbudget is someone who worries about money a lot, right?” Kayley asked.

“Just someone who fusses a lot,” I said. “Someone who finds fault and makes fusses all the time. A nitpicker. The budget is not our most common sense now but the sense that it grew out of. Just as bank comes from a table for handling money, budget comes from a purse for storing it in. It’s from French bougette, diminutive of bouge, which means ‘bag’ and also gave us bulge – so if the bulge in your pocket is a wallet, then it’s perfectly apposite. Anyway, from the bag sense came the contents sense – a budget can still be a bundle, the contents of a wallet or sock. Now picture that being a bunch of fusses.”

“Or flutters!” Anna interjected from the back.

“Well, it’s not right,” Eleanor said. “Talking about fluttering budgets just invites trouble.”

“Because a budgie might flutter away with your money?” Anna chirped.

“You don’t want to talk about losing money,” Eleanor said primly.

“Well, this doesn’t,” I said. “The flutters here are needless worries – butterflies in the stomach, what-ifs. The word is from L. Frank Baum’s The Emerald City of Oz – the Flutterbudgets are a group of people who spend all their time worrying about things that could happen or that might have happened but didn’t. Their favourite word is if. For example, one of them has pricked her finger with a needle.” Eleanor winced, whether at pricked or at the description of violence I’m not sure. “She is terribly afraid that she will get blood poisoning. Dorothy tells her that she – Dorothy – has pricked her finger many times and survived. At first the woman is relieved, but then she starts wailing again: ‘Oh, suppose I had pricked my foot! Then the doctors would have cut my foot off, and I’d be lamed for life!’ And so on.”

“I’d rather be a flibbertigibbet.” Of course that was Anna.

“It’s not nice to make fun of people who are concerned,” Eleanor said.

“There are the concerned,” I said, “and then there are the worrywarts and hand-wringers. Anyway, we are here to taste words. And this one trips around nicely on the lips, the tip of the tongue, the teeth, with just one retroflex. …Brian?”

“In a British pronunciation there wouldn’t be the retroflex r,” Brian said. “There would be three of basically the same vowel, three syllables in a row.”

“True, more or less,” I said, “but we’re Canadian, and Baum was American, so we and he get the alternating pattern. We all get the nice, bouncy four syllables, though. There are quite a few words with that kind of double trochee, all the way from pitter-patter and fuddy-duddy to paternoster.”

“That’s sacrilegious!” Eleanor exclaimed.

I was about to respond to that, but at the same time, from the back of the class, the voice of Anna chimed in, “Or motherf—”

I very nearly leapt across the room, but Kayley saved me the trouble, clapping her hand over Anna’s mouth.

Eleanor’s eyes widened accusingly as she looked at me over her glasses. “What if someone had been here? What would they think?”

Credit where it is due: I have http://www.anglaisfacile.com/forum/lire.php?num=3&msg=51851&titre=Traduction%2520-%2520flutterbudget to thank for bringing this word to my attention.