Wacky Word Wednesday: Flibbertigibbet

What do you imagine when you hear the word flibbertigibbet? Me, I picture a restless, fretful and voluble person. Not necessarily someone you don't want to be around, but you'll require lots of energy to manage them.

And that's fairly close the definition of this tongue-twister of a word. The Maquarie Dictionary describes a flibbertigibbet as “a chattering or flighty person, usually a child”. Other dictionaries have a slightly unkinder definition – The American Heritage Dictionary describes it as “a silly, scatterbrained, or garrulous person”.

According to most sources, flibbertigibbet is simply an imitation of meaningless or babbling speech. And it has had many different spellings over the centuries. Its first recorded use in English was around 1450 as fleper-gebet and, about a century later, it pops up again in a sermon as flybbergybe.

It was Shakespeare who gave us the current spelling of flibbertigibbet. In King Lear he uses it as the name of one of five fiends possessing Edgar. In this sense, it has also been used to describe Puck, the mischievous fairy in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Walter Scott also used Flibbertigibbet as a character name – of an impetuous child in his novel Kenilworth.

Now, the spelling of this word is not the only thing to evolve over time. For many centuries it was actually used to describe women. That's right – boys and men were not prone to being flighty, chattering or scatterbrained, only flibbertigibbet-y women could do that!

Luckily we've moved on and flibbertigibbet has taken on a more gender neutral tone, though you'll rarely see it in print. The most recent use I was able to find was this from an article in The Guardian in 2012 on the ongoing hacking trial in the UK:

But Cameron has a deeper problem: Murdoch has never really taken the prime minister seriously. He sees him as an intellectual lightweight who is, in the words of Jonathan Powell, something of a flibbertigibbet.

See? Men really can be flibbertigibbets.

Rather than use this week's wacky word in a sentence why don't you tell us which movie or book characters you consider flibbertigibbets? Leave your answers in the comments below.

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