Wednesday, 2 June 2010


Among the new members of the House of Lords announced a few days ago is John Prescott, the former Labour cabinet minister.
Lord Prescott, as we must now call him, has long appalled and delighted journalists with his tortured relationship to the English language. His syntax gets muddled, his grasp of vocabulary is strained, every one pokes fun at his English, yet he is not ineffective as an orator and he has a loyal political following.
Two years ago, asked by The Scotsman newspaper whether he was looking forward to a place in the Lords, he memorably declared
I’m against too much flunkery and titles.

— thus producing an idiosyncratic coinage of his own making, a blend of flunkey and flummery.
Both of these words have interesting origins.

According to the OED a flunkey, a male servant in livery, a footman, is a word of Scottish origin (or, as the OED words it, “orig. Scotch”), and supposedly a corruption of flanker, literally a sidesman or an attendant at your flank. Is this a Scottish a misheard as an English ʌ?

Flummery, on the other hand, is one of the very few English words of Welsh origin. Although nowadays it usually means ‘empty compliments, humbug’, it was (and perhaps for some still is) a kind of pudding / dessert / sweet dish, in Welsh llymru ˈɬəmrɨ, ˈɬəmri. For this semantic development, we can compare waffle. There’s a recipe here. Welsh stressed ə is regularly mapped onto English ʌ and vice versa.

I haven’t been able to discover anything further about the origins of the Welsh word. I suppose it could be related somehow to llwm ‘bare, destitute’, though there can hardly be any connection with llymrïaid ‘sand-eels’.

So flummery is like Floyd or Fluellin. A Welsh voiceless alveolar lateral fricative is rendered into English as fl, as frequently happened up to the nineteenth century. We don’t do that nowadays: rather, we now tend to render ɬ as θl or, slightly more sophisticatedly, as xl.
As Jack Windsor Lewis insists, few non-Welsh speakers can get it correctly as ɬ. Present company excepted, of course.


  1. 'Plaid Llymru'?

    (Not bad for one's first Welsh pun!)

  2. A couple of week ago I was quite impressed with the announcer my train from Manchester making a very good fist of "Wolverhampton: change here for services to Mid Wales and Pwllheli". Then again, the loudspeaker was pretty noisy, so all fricatives sound more or less alike, but it did sound pretty close to the real thing.

    I know a Russian speaker whose Welsh is pretty good, but he thought (and I think still does) that the best approximation to [ɬ] was the Russian [щ] (i.e. roughly [ɕ]). Quite some fights we had.

  3. I suppose the link would be with llymrig, "bare, naked; flaccid, limp, weak, soft, slippery, raw, uncooked; coarse, crude; poor, shabby, wretched" (Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru/A Dictionary of the Welsh Language).

    Sadly, Wales being a poor country on the unprofitable Celtic fringe, many traditional Welsh dishes are indeed rather "poor, shabby and wretched". The absence of Welsh restaurants from the fashionable city centres of the world is not difficult to understand.

  4. So that's where the German "Flammeri" for "(a kind of?) pudding" comes from; I had always assumed some connection with "Flamme" (flame).

  5. @Pavel: as John has mentioned on this blog before, some Welsh speakers produce fricatives other than [ɬ] for orthographic ll. I've certainly heard [ç] a number of times.

    Yesterday, while stood on the Ffestiniog Railway platform at Porthmadog, I overheard an (English) coach driver explaining to his (presumably English) passenger that Welsh ll was like "th" at the end of a word but [kl] at the beginning. And, he added, "dd" was much the same at the end of a word. No doubt his passenger was impressed with his knowledge.

    It is intriguing how the rephasing of voicelessness, frication and laterality ended up in [fl] in former times in England but seems to be pretty universally [kl] now - at least word-initially. Presumably the frication is present as a side effect of the long voice onset time after the initial plosive, giving [kl̥] or (almost) [kɬ].

  6. John, I think you would have some difficulty justifying the suggestion that the semantic development of 'flummery' is comparable to that of 'waffle'.

    The culinary analogy would be with the batter 'waffle'. That is a doublet of 'wafer' from Du. 'wafel', parallel to F 'gaufre', which has preserved the meaning 'honeycomb' (Ger. Wabe). I have always assumed that to be the original Teutonic sense and imagery, though it seems to be lost in the modern languages.

    Whereas the phonatory 'waffle' is apparently a frequentative of 'waff' (to yap) as OED 1698 Whaffling Whelps, that can bark and not bite, and 1821 Waffling curs and shepherd-dogs.

    But perhaps you meant the textile etc. 'waffle', which does preserve the meaning 'honeycomb', and makes it even more apparent that these variants are all etymologically related to 'weave'. I could imagine this having a semantic development comparable to the textile 'flannel': the flapdoodle 'flannel' has always had connotations of trouser wool pulled over eyes and flannel fights for me. And we come full circle with 'flannel-cake, a kind of thin griddle-cake' (OED).

  7. I find that people in England tend to pronounce [ɬ] quite well - at least to my English ears. They manage it at Euston station (trains to Llandudno), even though some of the announcers are not British.

    I have heard that a common mistake for learners is to produce [ɬ] with air passing over both sides of the tongue, while native Welsh speakers only use one side. True?

  8. Yes I have seen the odd reference to surveys of the unilateral preferences of native speakers. I think they found a huge sex-linked preponderance of one side over the other, due I suppose to visual cues. I wouldn't know how to begin to track these alleged results down. Probably unsearchable and possibly apocryphal, but this seems like a good place to ask about them.

  9. mallamb, you'll be aware that flannel, too, allegedly has a Welsh origin (gwlanen, from gwlân 'wool'). Though why gwl- should be recast as fl- is something of a mystery.

  10. Oh John, you rose to the trouser-wool bait! Coz mystery or no, you're wedi to Welsh etymologies.

  11. (I didn't start the ghastly Welsh puns!)

  12. Might the recasting of "gwl-" as "fl-" be a case of a labialised velar being reinterpreted as a velarised labial? Maybe there's not a vast amount of evidence for that in the spelling, but then nor is there a vast amount of orthographic evidence for final [f] in "cough".

  13. Leo: I think Jack Windsor Lewis's suggestion (based on what he says at is that non-Welsh speakers tend to produce a sequence [ɬl] rather than a pure [ɬ].

    I'm not a Welsh speaker, but my attempt at [ɬ] is unilateral (tongue to the right).

  14. As a L2 English speaker it's hard for me to gage [sic ;)] how obvious a relation between "flunkery" and "flummery" would seem here, but wouldn't a simple derivation flunkie + -ery work as well? Seems like this case is straddling the boundary of suffixation and analogy…