flibbertigibbet

A “flibbertigibbet” is a Middle English word, referring to a frivolous, flighty, or whimsical person, usually a young woman. In modern use it is a slang term for a gossipy or excessively talkative person.

It arose around the 1540s, probably a nonsense word meant to sound like babbling or prattling on in meaningless chatter, but by 1600, it also was used as the name of a devil or fiend.

In the 15th-century English morality play The Castle of Perseverance, the Bad Angel addresses the vice figure Detraccio as Flyprgebet. 

Shakespeare used the word, which he got from Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603), where one reads of 40 fiends which Jesuits cast out and among which was Fliberdigibbet. In his King Lear (1605), Edgar uses it for a demon or imp: “This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet. … He gives the web and the pin, squints the eye, and makes the harelip; mildews the white wheat, and hurts the poor creature of earth.”

According to a local legend, Flibbertigibbet was apprentice to Wayland the Smith and greatly exasperated his master. Eventually, Wayland threw Flibbertigibbet down the hill and into a valley, where he was transformed into a stone.

In 2018, British author Chris Redmile released a children’s book entitled The Flibber-ti-gibbet, a book designed to educate children about the traits of ADHD.

Although the basic sense of “flibbertigibbet” as a “blithering fool” has been in constant use since the mid-1500s, there was an interesting exception. Sir Walter Scott, in his novel Kenilworth (1821), used “Flibbertigibbet” as the nickname of an impish, impetuous child.

Bishop Latimer used it in a sermon before King Edward VI, though he wrote it as flybbergybe. 

I haven’t heard the term “flibbertigibbet” since I was a child, when some humorless adult used it to malign a high-spirited young woman.

Not surprisingly, the Oxford English Dictionary lists 15 spellings. If I turned the spell-checker off and used my imagination, I could probably come up with more than that.

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