Malapropisms: as users of language, we are all guilty of using them sometimes. In the heat of trying to express ourselves, we use one word in place of another—particularly when those words sound similar—and soon we are flaunting accepted usage. Or would that be flouting accepted usage?
To begin with, flaunt relates to vainglorious or ostentatious display, whereas flout denotes an expression of disdain or contempt, often for something forbidden by rule or custom (one grammar blog neatly sums this up by stating that “you flaunt something you like and flout something you don’t”1). Flaunt is used transitively (“Lamilia stopped off to flaunt her ermine and her jewels”) as well as intransitively (“Lamilia came flaunting by, garnished with the jewels whereof she beguiled him”2(p602)) and also is often used in a quasi-transitive sense2(p602) (eg, the currently common “If you’ve got it, flaunt it”). Similarly, flout may be used transitively (eg, the currently common “flout the law”) or intransitively (“It never came into our thoughts… to flout, in so bold a manner”2(p609)). However, flout is not typically used in the quasi-transitive sense.
So flaunt and flout, while often confused, do have distinct meanings. Prescriptive grammarians will point out that flaunt and flout are thus distinct terms and should not be used interchangeably, whereas grammarians with more descriptive leanings will be less inclined to observe a distinction in meaning, in particular maintaining that flaunt may sometimes be used when prescriptive usage would call for flout. Indeed, some authorities, such as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, now accept the use of flaunt in place of flout in certain constructions—specifically, when the transitive is required (“meting out punishment to the occasional mavericks who operate rigged games, tolerate rowdyism, or otherwise flaunt the law”3). However, at least in relation to this pair of words, the prescriptivists would seem to hold the upper hand. First, flaunt is acceptable (from a descriptive standpoint) in place of flout only when the transitive is required. Second, flout is rarely used in place of flaunt. Third and most importantly, flaunt and flout are similar only in the way they sound, rather than in their (until recently) accepted meanings.
To further complicate matters, though, flaunt is sometimes—albeit quite rarely—confused with vaunt, which denotes boasting or bragging. Like the former, vaunt may be used transitively (“He vaunts his Conquest, She conceals Her Shame”2(p2217)) or intransitively (“They laud their verses, they boast, they vaunt, they jest”2(p2217)) and as early as the 1600s was used in a quasi-transitive sense (“to vant it or vie in gaming”2(p2217)). However, the confusion between flaunt and vaunt stems not only from their marked similarity in sound but also from their somewhat similar meanings (to display oneself boastfully or ostentatiously, often so as to show off one’s attractiveness or possessions, compared with using language boastfully, often to boast of an accomplishment). Indeed, given the similarities in sound and meaning that exist between these two words, it is perhaps surprising that they are not confused more often. On the whole, however, language users usually seem to recognize the difference between these words, and even descriptive usage does not yet support the use of vaunt in place of flaunt or vice versa.
In short, flaunt, flout, and vaunt are sometimes used as malapropisms for one another, particularly in spoken language. However, these terms have distinct meanings and, despite their similarity in sound as well as the increasing support in some circles for sometimes using flaunt in place of flout, currently it is preferable to maintain the distinctions between these terms and to use them as they have predominantly been used over time. Or, to take some liberties with the quasi-transitive:
If you’ve got it, flaunt it;
If you did it, vaunt it;
If they forbid it, flout it.—Phil Sefton, ELS
1. Motivated Grammar: Flout good taste; flaunt your excesses. http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2008/02/23/flout-good-taste-flaunt-your-excess/. Accessed November 30, 2011.
2. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991.
3. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA; Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:477.