What is a flautist? A flutist, but perhaps a little snootier. Fowler wrote, “Flutist is more than 350 years old; flautist (from Italian flautista) dates only from the middle of the 19th c., and there seems no good reason why it should have prevailed. … But it has.” Well, it has in England and perhaps in Canada, rather less so in the United States.
But what gust of linguistic afflatus would lead us to flout standard sensible English derivational morphology and the usual rules of English pronunciation just to flaunt a foreign word as the preferred form? Here’s a little thought experiment: Let’s say that you met someone who played the bassoon, or even just someone who seemed to know a fair bit about music, and he said not “bassoonist” but “bassenist.” Would you think, “Wow, that’s weirdly wrong,” or would you think something more like, “Huh, I guess bassenist must be the more cultured way of saying it, because it’s not the simple predictable way and there’s no reason for this knowledgeable person to say it unless it’s the more correct way, just like all those other weird exceptions we have in English”?
Linguistic insecurity is very common in English and tends to cause us to prefer what linguists call the “marked” form — our lexicon is a flock of odd ducks chosen for their oddness. We learn as small children that there are many words where the seemingly logical form is the “grossly uneducated and illiterate” one. We must learn to play the instrument of our language as carefully as a delicate and fickle fipple flute.
It also doesn’t surprise me that we would go for flautist more in Canada; Americans lean a little more towards the straightforward, dropping silent letters willy-nilly. We also retain greater ties to Britain in Canada. But there’s also the little matter of pronunciation. Oxford gives the pronunciation just as /ˈflɔːtɪst/ – as in “flawtist.” But the preferred pronunciation among North Americans who are “in the know” is the one modeled on Italian: /ˈflaʊtɪst/, the main vowel like “ow” rather than “aw.”
And why shouldn’t we take the word from Italian? That’s where we got flute, after all, isn’t it? Hmm, no, actually. Italian got its word flauta from Old Provençal or Old French, which didn’t get it from Latin. Now, yes, the form at that time was flaute. But it moved up through French to English and in so doing the vowel changed a little. Modern French is flute and flûtiste. We rather likely borrowed flautist from Italian later on because we borrow all sorts of musical terms from Italian. But we didn’t borrow it intact, flautista; we clipped the a off the end, making it not so much a borrowing as an affectation… and a mark of linguistic insecurity: we think it highfalutin’, but others may think it flat-out flawed.
Thanks to several of my colleagues in the Editors’ Association of Canada for discussing this word today on the email list.