He pounced on a piece of text and fairly bounced with outrage. “Words don’t get meaning from sounding like other words!” he pronounced, and, having thus denounced, flounced out of the room.

And fair enough: in general, words don’t get their meaning by sounding like other words. If they did, puns would be rather duller, and all those caterers with fare and thyme in their names – and all those hairstylists with mane – would just seem like they were making spelling errors. But there are always exceptions. We do sometimes shift the sense of a word towards what we think it sounds like it’s supposed to mean – outrage, for instance, has nothing in its origins to do with rage, and yet… 

Of course, that’s an etymological conjecture. But conjectures on the basis of similarity are always conjectures of relatedness; we need to remember that most speakers of a language don’t actually know which words are cognate and which are not, and so if cognate sounds related to cognition they will think of them as having a similarity of sense. (The two words are, in fact, unrelated.)

And anyway, it goes the other way too: we will take bits from words and put them together to make other words. Of course we will! And we’ll do it in a way that just feels like it makes sense. So we get chocoholic, from choco-, trimmed from chocolate (it is not a word made from a root and a suffix), plus -holic, trimmed from alcohol, which is a one-piece word in English but traces back to Arabic al-kuhl.

So, now. Flounce. You know that it has something in common with bounce, jounce, pounce, and perhaps trounce, but not with ounce or any of the Latin-derived words containing -nounce (pronounce, announce, denounce, etc.). If you were to define flounce, what would you say? Would ‘bounce in a floppy or flailing way’ work? But then can we say that that fl- is adding an element of sense, if not in the origins then at least in the way we think of the word?

Well, fl- isn’t a morpheme – it doesn’t automatically carry meaning. Sure, there are flail, flap, flutter, flounder, and a few others like that; but there are also flat, flake, flank, floor, and a few others that seem to have to do with two-dimensional surfaces; and there are fly, flower, floss, fleerflaw, and assorted others that relate to neither. In fact, of all the etymologically unrelated words in English that start with fl, about one in seven have something to do with loose motion and about one in six have something to do with surfaces. That’s arguably more than chance, but it’s far from a sure thing. And yet if you’re casting around in your mind looking for words with a similar sense, perhaps to use as a basis for a portmanteau, it could be a quorum.

But that’s not where flounce comes from, is it? Well… we’re not completely sure. There is a verb flunsa that in Norwegian means ‘hurry’ or ‘work briskly’ and in Swedish means ‘fall with a splash’; it seems like it could be related to flounce, but there’s no actual trail of evidence to connect the two; also, the Scandinavian words are first attested from the 1700s, and flounce is first seen in texts from the 1500s, whereas the development of sound and form would require the two to have split apart from their common source at least a few centuries earlier.

And on the other hand, words – especially expressive words – do have something of a history of being formed imitatively in English: sometimes imitating the sound (e.g., splash), but sometimes just imitating other expressive words. And yes, there is the possibility that flounce was formed by analogy with bounce and pounce plus that fl at the start, which might flap or flutter or might just soften the overall effect. After all, we did just that kind of thing with plounce, a (now rare) word that showed up in the 1600s and means ‘plunge into water’ or ‘flounder in water’.

And then, on the other hand, given that people are often more prone to flouncing (either literally, moving in an exaggerated fashion, or more figuratively, making an ostentatious departure, say) when they have had a bit to drink, could a connection to fluid ounce be worth a shot? …No, it could not.

Incidentally, however ostentatious both may seem, the flounce that names a decorative fringe or ruffle is not related to the verb flounce; it comes from the Middle English verb frouncen ‘curl’.

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