photograph: Famille Michaud, beekeepers since 1920
– verb: to behave as though sexually attracted to someone, but playfully rather than with serious intentions
– noun: a person who acts flirtatiously
The verb flirt is probably onomatopoeic, the phonetic elements /fl-/ and /-əːt/ both suggesting sudden movement. It may therefore be comparable to verbs such as flick, meaning to strike or propel (something) with a sudden quick movement of the fingers, and squirt, to cause (a liquid) to be ejected from a small opening in a thin, fast stream or jet.
Three of the original verb senses of flirt, in the second half of the 16th century, were:
– to give (a person) a sharp, sudden blow or knock,
– to propel or throw with a jerk or sudden movement,
– to move with a jerk or spring, to spring, dart, like a winged creature taking short quick flights.
Similarly, during the same period, the earliest noun senses were a smart tap or blow, a sudden jerk or movement, a smart stroke of wit, that is, a jest, a joke. But the noun also denoted a woman of a giddy, flighty character (in A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), the English lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-84) defined flirt in this sense as “a pert young hussey”). This meaning is first recorded in 1562 in the translation of Virgil’s Aeneid by Thomas Phaer (1510?-1560), English lawyer, pediatrician and author; in his tirade against the Trojans, who, according to him, live in too much peace and luxury, the Italian Numanus says:
Your study chief is daunse in pampryng feasts with giglet flirts.
The noun was also used to mean a woman of loose character, as in the following passage from Pasquils fooles-cap sent to such (to keepe their weake braines warme) as are not able to conceiue aright of his mad-cap (1600), by the English poet Nicholas Breton (1555?-circa 1626):
Shee that doth keepe an Inne for euery Guest,
And makes no care what winde blowe vp her skirt,
And readie is to breake a Chaucers ieast,
To make a Smocke euen measure with a Shirt:
If such a one be call’d a Foolish flirt,
Twas not for nothing that she had her name,
When all the world is witnesse to her shame.
And the following is from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), by Randle Cotgrave (bagasse, baggage, quean, jill and punk mean prostitute):
Bagasse: feminine. A Baggage, Queane, Iyll, Punke, Flirt.
However, the earliest recorded verb sense, in 1553, was, of the nostrils, to be turned up or dilated, as if sneering. Later, flirt came to be used to mean to turn up one’s nose, hence to sneer. This is first recorded in The essayes, or morall, politike, and millitarie discourses of Lord Michaell de Montaigne (1603), a translation of the Essays by Michel de Montaigne (1533-92); John Florio (1553-1625), teacher of languages, lexicographer and author of Anglo-Italian origin, used flurting to render French hochant du nez:
Diogenes […] flurting at Alexander.
In the above-mentioned dictionary, Randle Cotgrave defined hocher du nez, literally to ‘nod’ one’s nose, as
Disdainefully to snuffe at.
The notion of cheeky behaviour of flirt in the sense of a woman of a giddy, flighty character gave rise to that of playfully amorous behaviour. In the sense of a woman who plays at courtship, the noun is first attested in Clarissa. Or, The History of a Young Lady: Comprehending the most Important Concerns of Private Life. And particularly shewing, The Distresses that may attend the Misconduct Both of Parents and Children, In Relation to Marriage (1748), an epistolary novel by the English printer and author Samuel Richardson (1689-1761):
She was not one of those flirts, not she, who would give pain to a person that deserved to be well-treated.
She was priding herself, that now, at last, she should have it in her power not only to gratify her own susceptibilities, but to give an example to the flirts of her sex […] how to govern their man with a silken rein, and without a kerb-bridle!
But in the sense of a man who plays at courtship, flirt was already in use around 1732; in The Distress’d Wife, a comedy by the English poet and playwright John Gay (1685-1732), “a collection of the newest expressions in use among the fine gentlemen and ladies” contains:
A flirt. One who gives himself all the airs of making love in public; that is of vast consequence to himself, and to nobody besides.
In the New English Dictionary (1901 edition), as the Oxford English Dictionary was known, the earliest recorded use of the noun flirting in the sense of the action of playing at courtship, is from The Tatler of 30th April 1709:
It is matter of much speculation among the beaux and oglers, what it is that can have made so sudden a change, as has been of late observed, in the whole behaviour of Pastorella, who never sat still a moment till she was eighteen, which she has now exceeded by two months. Her aunt, who has the care of her, has not been always so rigid as she is at this present date; but has so good a sense of the frailty of woman, and falsehood of man, that she resolved on all manner of methods to keep Pastorella, if possible, in safety, against herself, and all her admirers. At the same time the good lady knew by long experience, that a gay inclination, curbed too rashly, would but run to the greater excesses for that restraint: therefore intended to watch her, and take some opportunity of engaging her insensibly in her own interests, without the anguish of an admonition. You are to know then, that miss, with all her flirting and ogling, had also naturally a strong curiosity in her, and was the greatest eavesdropper breathing. Parisatis (for so her prudent aunt is called) observed this humour, and retires one day to her closet, into which she knew Pastorella would peep, and listen to know how she was employed. It happened accordingly, and the young lady saw her good governante on her knees, and after a mental behaviour, break into these words: “As for the dear child committed to my care, let her sobriety of carriage, and severity of behaviour, be such, as may make that noble lord, who is taken with her beauty, turn his designs to such as are honourable.” Here Parisatis heard her niece nestle closer to the keyhole: she then goes on; “Make her the joyful mother of a numerous and wealthy offspring, and let her carriage be such, as may make this noble youth expect the blessings of an happy marriage, from the singularity of her life, in this loose and censorious age.” Miss having heard enough, sneaks off for fear of discovery, and immediately at her glass, alters the sitting of her head; then pulls up her tucker, and forms herself into the exact manner of Lindamira: in a word, becomes a sincere convert to everything that’s commendable in a fine young lady; and two or three such matches as her aunt feigned in her devotions, are at this day in her choice. This is the history and original cause of Pastorella’s conversion from coquetry.
However, it was apparently already in this sense that Bridget Willoughby (died 1629) used the noun flirting in a letter, written on an 11th of February around 1615, to her husband, the landowner, entrepreneur and businessman Sir Percival Willoughby (died 1643), about the marriage of their daughter, Bridget, with Henry Cavendish:
I am sure he will com up to [= too] with her, and the riding, flawning [= flaunting?], roysting [= noisy revelry], and flortting by the way will be sutche as every ostelor will talke of it. He is every day here and in her chamber, and Mr. Rosell and Mr. Mason, and banketes in her chamber.
In the second half of the 19th century, French borrowed the English noun flirt as a masculine noun meaning flirtation, flirting and girlfriend/boyfriend, and the English verb as (in the infinitive form) flirter, meaning to behave or act amorously without emotional commitment.
Since then, the French have had a tendency to say that the English flirt originates from the obsolete French verb fleureter or/and the French expression conter fleurette(s). So much so that the following is from the Dictionnaire de L’Académie française (8th Edition – 1932-5):
Flirt – nom masculin. Mot emprunté de l’anglais et qui a pour origine notre vieux verbe fleureter (= Word borrowed from English and which originates from our old verb fleureter).
And in 2007, when he was admitted to the Académie de Stanislas, at Nancy, Professor Claude Perrin said in a speech about French:
Le délicieux fleureter, qui persiste dans l’expression conter fleurette, s’est mué en l’odieux flirt (= The delightful fleureter, which remains in the expression conter fleurette, has turned into the odious flirt).
The verb fleureter meant to say superficial things. Its original sense was to decorate with floral motifs. It had long been obsolete when it was erroneously associated with the English verb flirt after the latter was borrowed into French.
The expression conter fleurette(s) à quelqu’un, literally to tell floret(s) to somebody, means to whisper sweet nothings in somebody’s ear.
However, the following meaning of French fleureter is very close to one of the senses of the English verb flirt; it was recorded by Randle Cotgrave in the above-mentioned French-English dictionary:
Fleureter. Sleightly to run, lightly to passe ouer; onely to touch a thing in going by it (metaphorically from the little Bees nimble skipping from flower to flower as she feeds).
But this meaning seems to have been recorded only in this particular dictionary. It is therefore difficult to know whether it was common, and whether it appeared under the influence of the English verb or, conversely, whether the use of the latter was influenced by it.