Is That a Flaute, Good Sir?

Recently I was editing a manuscript whose author had used the word flautist. Having been raised in a musical household and taken classical piano lessons for many years, I am familiar with the word; as a child I was informed flautist was the appropriate [English] word for someone who played the flute.

But … why? I’ll come back to that question.

When I started in this business—and by this I mean writing, reading, paying attention to grammar and syntax and spelling, and, much later, editing—I was pretty hard-core about what was right. (Me. All the time. Ha.)

But I’ve been around long enough to know, now, that some of my most closely held notions about the word biz are based not on fact or research but on where I grew up (with Midwestern parents) or (probably more importantly) when I grew up. Because things change, tastes change, the Chicago Manual of Style changes (regularly).

And sometimes things we hold very dear, for one reason or another, are based on nothing more than something the Victorians thought was cool and propagated until it was taken as the right and proper thing.

Like, perhaps, flautist.

I texted my son, who has a lot more musical education than I ever had (and who is, actually, a professional musician and educator). I also raised the question on Facebook. Then I checked the dictionary, which started informing my opinion before I heard from anyone.

Origin of the word flute:
Middle English floute, from Middle French flaute, flahute, fleute, from Old Provençal flaut, perhaps alteration (influenced by laut lute) of flaujol, flauja, from (assumed) Vulgar Latin flabeolum …
First Known Use: 14th century
Flutist, first known use: 1603
Flautist, first known use: 1860

So we can see the etymology of the English word flute.

When my musical friends started weighing in from various parts of the world (that’s the beauty of Facebook), I got a lot more information. After I’d processed the comments and filtered opinion and pedantry from fact, this is what I deduced: it’s a regional thing.

Let’s break it down further.

  • Flautist seems to be preferred by Commonwealth English speakers (Britain, Australia, Canada); Americans tend to prefer flutist.
  • Some music teachers in America are still teaching the word flautist. This comes, perhaps, from an attitude you see in the classical music industry (you see it in the publishing industry too) that exclusivity and the mystery of things only “we” know makes us special. That makes it sound like jargon to me.
  • Many current professional musicians in America have never heard flautist used professionally. Reactions among my younger American musician friends ranged from “in practice, I have never met a professional who insists on being a flautist, although I’m sure those people do exist” and “I’ve never heard anyone use flautist with a straight face,” to “secretly I judge people who use flautist, and not in a good way.” Some reacted even more vehemently. :)
  • To avoid controversy, many professionals call themselves flute players.
  • The American musicians I spoke with were willing to accept either term, but as noted, most considered flautist to be (ahem) a little silly, perhaps even a little snobbish.

A lot of things from an older age can seem that way. Remember, flautist dates from just 1860—when Nathaniel Hawthorne used the word in his novel The Marble Faun. The story is set it Italy and Hawthorne had been living in that country for a year or so. Europe in that time was seen as more glamorous, more authentic, classier. Hawthorne’s use of an Italian word in his English-language novel was a Victorian-era affectation, basically.

But as is the way with all things linguistic, the pendulum continues to swing. Nancy Toff, the leading American flute historian, notes that she is asked about the word regularly. In her classic The Flute Book (Scribners, 1985, pp. xiv–xv), she declares her preference: “I play the flute, not the flaut; therefore I am a flutist not a flautist.” And international virtuoso flute player Sir James Galway has echoed this sentiment as quoted in the Guardian: “I am a flute player not a flautist. I don’t have a flaut and I’ve never flauted.”

Again, I used to think that my word use was the right way, but I’ve been around the biz long enough now to realize that my way of using a particular word is, usually, the Midwestern way (both my parents were Midwestern born and raised). I have wordy friends with different word ways, and when we compare notes, we usually conclude it’s simply a regional difference. It’s only natural for us to believe the definitions, pronunciations, slang, grammar, “rules” we grew up with are the right and only way.

But language—no matter which one you’re using—is a living, breathing thing. Words fall out of favor; they change or add meanings. Writing styles change, grammar rules change. New generations come along, new technology comes along, and all of these things affect the word biz. Those of us who work in it every day understand this, but many of you still think you are supposed to double space after a period—and you get all huffy with me when I suggest otherwise. Don’t shoot the messenger, kids. Let it go.

In the end, I changed my author’s word to flutist. Though either word could be used, this was an American author writing for an American publisher; using flautist, it seemed, would be like putting on a British accent, and might sound pretentious. And we don’t want that.

Tweet: Is that a flaute, good sir?
Tweet: Flutist or flautist? I won’t judge you for your answer. It’s a regional thing.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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5 Comments

  1. As a former, um, flute player…I LOVE this explanation.

  2. Great post, Jamie!

    I always thought ‘flautist’ because “El Burro Flautista” was part of my childhood (which is really weird for a British-educated Mongol, but there ya go…)

    Speaking of flute players, if you like classical music, you should listen to Walter Piston’s score for his ballet, “The Incredible Flutist”; one of the middle movements is just heartbreakingly lovely.

    Here’s the Youtube link; it’s only 16 minutes, if you’re interested, but well worth the listen.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJvq-RY6rT4

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      Well, and you’re a speaker/writer of Commonwealth English, too, so “flautist” from you doesn’t surprise me—you fall right in line with my informal canvass. It IS interesting to note that this American composer was using “flutist” to title this (lovely!) piece back in 1938.

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