Would you know whether to use flaunt or flout in a sentence? Both have a slightly similar meaning but they’re not interchangeable.
It’s amazing what you can learn from closed captioning. A rerun of The Andy Griffith Show recently reminded me of the difference between two words that nearly sound the same.
In the episode, Sheriff Andy Taylor shows up at the office of a prominent newspaper publisher with a summons. It turns out that the publisher committed a traffic violation and agreed to return for a court date. But the date came and went and he didn’t show up. So, Taylor arrives to arrest him.
At the trial, where Taylor doubles as justice of the peace, he fines the publisher $15. The small amount enrages the publisher, who says something along the lines of, “You dragged me all the way here for a $15 fine?”
Taylor responds this way:
“No, sir, you were brought in here because you flaunted the law and you just can’t do that.”
I saw on the closed captioning, which I happened to have on at that moment, that it displayed flouted instead of flaunted. I went back and listened to the line. It certainly sounds like Griffith is saying flaunted, but the captioning says flounted.
So which one is actually correct?
Flaunt or flout?
To flaunt is to show off, to parade around. Think of the male peacock strutting around with his tail feathers extended to attract a mate. That’s the primary meaning. There’s a second one I’ll get to in a moment.
To flout is to treat with contemptuous disregard, as in “flouting the rules.”
The publisher in the episode, by ignoring a summons, seemed to be flouting the law. Perhaps, in doing so, he was consciously or subconsciously trying to flaunt his power and authority, operating as if he believed he was above the law.
Haven’t we all heard of people who might do something like that?
But there’s a second definition of flaunt that muddies the waters here. Merriam-Webster lists that defintion as “to treat contemptuously.” It may be that the second definition came about because people got confused over the two words. The Online Etymology Dictionary indicates that both words came into the English language in the mid-1500s.
Remember: Dictionaries aren’t style guides. They simply define words as they’re used to help people understand what’s being said or written. That’s why you find “nonstandard” words like irregardless, which people mistakenly use when they mean regardless, in the dictionary.
Your best bet, I say, it to avoid muddying the waters even more.
Use flaunt to mean showing off or acting arrogantly. Use flout to mean showing disrespectful disregard. Think of the peacock flaunting around to help you remember the difference.
And try not to flout the rules of language!