There’s A Word for That: Flibbertigibbet

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf you have ever been on a long flight, you have probably sat in front of one — and been annoyed the entire flight because you forgot to bring your noise-canceling headphones. Aargh! We are talking about a flibbertigibbet, defined as an excessively talkative person; a chatterbox or a silly, flighty person. The word is pronounced “fli ber TEE ji bet.” The word is a variation of the Middle English word flepergebet, introduced around the mid 1500s, that means “gossip,” “gossiper,” or “blabbermouth. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 15 variant spellings, including flybbergybe, fibber de’ jibe and flipperty-gibbet. The word is onomatopoeic, created from sounds that represent idle chatter.

In King Lear (published c. 1608), William Shakespeare uses the word flibbertigibbet for the name of a devil. In Act II, Scene IV, Edgar (disguised as a madman) speaks to Lear and his Fool: “This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet: he begins at curfew, and walks till the first cock; he give the web and pin, squints the eye, and makes the harelip; mildews the white wheat, and hurts the poor creature of the heart.” Some annotated versions of this play, indicate that Shakespeare meant the term to mean a false flatterer.

Later, Sir Walter Scott uses Flibbertigibbet for the alias of a mischievous urchin, Dickie Sludge, in the historical romance novel Kenilworth, published in 1821: “Either Flibbertigibbet,” answered Wayland Smith, “or else an imp of the devil in good earnest.”
“Thou has hit it,” answered Dickie Sludge. “I am thine own Flibbertigibbet, man; and I have broken forth of bounds, along with my learned preceptor, as I told thee I would do, whether he would or not.”

Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein used the word flibbertigibbet in the famous musical The Sound of Music which premiered on Broadway in 1959 and ran for three years. It was adapted in the film of the same name in 1965 by director Robert Wise and screenwriter Ernest Lehman. In the song, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” the nuns at Nonnberg Abbey in Salzburg sing the following lyrics about a free-spirited postulant named Maria von Trapp, the quintessential flibbertigibbet:

She’d outpester any pest
Drive a hornet from its nest
She could throw a whirling dervish out of whirl
She is gentle! She is wild!
She’s a riddle! She’s a child!
She’s a headache! She’s an angel!
She’s a girl!

How do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find a word that means Maria?
A flibbertijibbet! A will-o’-the wisp! A clown!

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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2 thoughts on “There’s A Word for That: Flibbertigibbet

  1. The word is also used in Sound of Music, in the song, “How Do You Solve Problem Like Maria?’ Sung by the nuns at the Abbey, the line goes, “A flibbertigibbet, a willow-a-wisp, a clown” as they discuss in song the frustrating, yet endearing qualities of this young woman who wants to become one of their order.

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