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Mind your language

Mind your language

Dot Wordsworth flips

20 May 2009

12:00 AM

20 May 2009

12:00 AM

William Barnes, that remarkable Dorset schoolmaster turned rector, with his buckled shoes and knee-breeches, and eccentric ideas on the English language, wrote a poem on milking time:

I come along where wide-horn’d cows,

’Ithin a nook, a-screen’d by boughs,


Did stan’ an’ flip the white-hoop’d païls

Wi’ heäiry tufts o’ swingèn taïls.

The milking time in which MPs have now been detected has already spawned two words, one of them being flip. It is quite distant in meaning from the action of Barnes’s cows’ tails.

In the 17th century, 200 years before Barnes’s time, flip had appeared from nowhere as an alternative to fillip, meaning ‘a flick with finger and thumb’. In the context of MPs’ expenses, flip means ‘to switch the designation of main and secondary home’ for financial gain (only the second home qualifying for those lovely allowances). In some cases flips have been back and forwards like a pinball machine.

To get from the fillip to the switch, we have to pick up a thread that emerged quite soon after flip was born: the meaning ‘to toss a coin’. ‘’Twere as good flip cross and pile, as to dispute for’t,’ wrote Joseph Granvill in The Vanity of Dogmatising, incomprehensibly enough, until one realises that cross and pile means ‘heads or tails’ (the pile apparently being the pillar on which a coin was laid to be minted). In America flipping a coin is the ordinary word for ‘tossing’, and from America came most of the half-dozen new senses of flip from the past half century. To flip burgers is a metonymic term for a lowly paid existence. ‘I was ready to flip burgers, make lattes, or sell T-shirts,’ as a travel writer put it in the year 2000. A flip chart flips over; a flip phone flips open; a flip chip is copied by being pressed against a patterned substrate. Flipping one’s lid (or wig), a term from the 1950s has developed into flipping out. Flipping the bird describes an obscene gesture with the middle finger; hence to flip off somebody. And now our friends the flippers have expanded the Empire of Flipping. If their reign is over, flipping will become an obscure historical detail.

The other, quasi-official, word, redact, is a strange adaptation, in the sense of ‘blot out sensitive material from a published document’. Redact meaning edit was reintroduced into English in the 19th century, being much favoured by Carlyle: ‘The House of Commons was busy redacting a “Protestation”,’ he wrote in Cromwell. Now they protest at a lack of redaction.


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