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A contestant in a spelling bee, assigned the word highfalutin, paused momentarily. She’d heard of highfalutin, she said, but she didn’t know it was a real word.

It’s real, though some dictionaries label it “informal” (and some don’t). But it’s a mysterious word. Both the spelling and the origin are unclear.

The Random House Unabridged lists highfalutin as the predominant spelling, although it also acknowledges highfalutin’, hifalutin, hifalutin’ and highfaluting. The word is generally defined as “pompous; bombastic; haughty; pretentious.” RH says that highfalutin dates from around 1830 and is “perhaps” derived from fluting – apparently referring to the ornamental grooves seen on the columns of some imposing structures.

The Word Detective, generally astute in such matters, says “The origin of ‘highfalutin’ (or the variant ‘highfaluting’) is not known for certain, but chances are good that it began as a corruption of ‘high-flying’ or ‘high-flown,’ meaning pretentiously affluent (or, as New Yorkers say, ‘hoity-toity’).”

John Ciardi says in his “Browser’s Dictionary” that high-falutin(g)/hifalutin is “probably (?) a la-di-da variant of ‘fluting’ (‘toodlin’ high’).” Whatever that means.

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage reiterates that the origin of hifalutin is obscure. It also says that the alternative spelling highfalutin reflects folk etymology at work, “trying to inject meaning into the first syllable.” But it adds that highfalutin has become the more popular spelling: “High- no doubt seems right for an ‘uppity’ word.”

So it’s a hard word to handle in a spelling bee, and the speller I mentioned didn’t. I’ve forgotten her version, but it was not the same as the lone spelling listed in the dictionary that was designated the final authority for the contest. Sadly, she was eliminated from the competition, likely forced to endure the condescension of a hifalutin/highfalutin winner.

I hope Arkansas State University shows imagination in selecting a new nickname for its athletic teams. There are enough lions, tigers, etc., on the playing fields already. I thought of Razorbacks, a kind of wild hog once found in the state, but I’ve been advised that’s taken.

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