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WORDSWORDSWORDS#7 (Flout/Flaunt/Notoriety)

What's wrong with the following excerpt from a recent New York Times article?

"Kriesel's memo attributed the increase in passengers bringing their own alcoholic drinks on board to the lack of in-flight drink sales and availability of alcohol in airports during the pandemic. Southwest is only serving passengers a cup of water and a package of snack mix. She said most airlines are "noticing the same challenges.'' American Airlines has seen an increase in incidents, too, spokesman Ross Feinstein said. Southwest seemed to give most passengers the benefit of the doubt, suggesting they might not be aware of the policy rather than flaunting it."

If you are sharp-eyed or hope to be a copy editor someday, you will notice the error right away. In the last line, the author says that the passengers might be ignorant of the company's policy rather than "flaunting" it. By inference, we can see that he meant that rather than openly ignoring or violating the policy, the passengers may just be unaware of it. Unfortunately, the word "flaunt" doesn't have anything to do with rejection; instead it means to "show off in a conspicuous manner". The word the writer wanted was "flout"--which means to openly reject or ignore. Somebody caught the error eventually, because when I returned to the article online a few days later, the word had been changed. But it has become a fairly common error to substitute "flaunt" for "flout". In fact, this wasn't the first time the vaunted New York Times had made the error. Here's another example:

“The White House issued a statement that deplored the Nigerian Government’s ‘flaunting [read ‘flouting’] of even the most basic international norms and universal standards of human rights.’” Howard W. French, “Nigeria Executes Critic of Regime; Nations Protest,” N.Y. Times, 11 Nov. 1995, at A1.

According to the Oxford University Press Blog, almost no one using "flout" uses it incorrectly (although there are a few examples). It is almost always used in he sense of ignoring laws as in:

“A record rider turnout, fueled by the mayor’s earlier pledge to end the escort and crack down on cyclists flouting traffic laws, poured into the streets on an improvised route.” Chuck Finnie & Rachel Gordon, “Critical Mass Reaches Another Fork in the Road,” S.F. Examiner, 3 Aug. 1997, at B1.

Sadly, the flaunt-for-flout error is made so frequently that, according to the Oxford English Corpus, the things most commonly flaunted after ‘wealth’ are ‘the law’ and ‘rules’. Imagine that!

So, let's recap. If you want to say that someone is showing off, you write:

The tech billionaire enjoyed flaunting his wealth.

If you want to say someone is ignoring or rejecting something, you write:

During the pandemic, many foolish people flouted the law and refused to wear masks.

The misuse of the word "notoriety" is so widespread that it has come to be accepted in many quarters (though not in my AP English classes). It's hard to figure, since if you ask most people to define the word "notorious", they'll say "well known for some bad thing" or words to that effect. Yet, when they use the word "notoriety", which derives from the exact same root, they'll often mean it to refer to someone who has achieved fame of any kind--good or bad.

As Merriam-Webster says:

[Notorious] was first used in the 16th century with the neutral meaning "well or widely known," but very early it came to be used with nouns of unsavory meaning—one of the earliest uses is the combination "notorious sinners." Frequent use with nouns of this kind colored the subsequent use of the word with a pejorative connotation, leading to the word's most frequently used sense, "widely and unfavorably known."

Here is the example they use:

… Charlie Gasko turned out to be James "Whitey" Bulger, the notorious Boston gangster, and longtime fugitive who is now in prison serving two lifetime sentences. — Lesley Stahl, speaking on CBS, 10 July 2016

As you can see, though, their definition of "notoriety" is a little more ambiguous:

: the condition of being famous or well-known especially for something bad : the state of being notorious

By adding that "especially", it suggests that sometimes the use of "notoriety" is appropriate to describe people or things that are well known but not necessarily "notorious".

Many other authorities disagree with this lax definition. The good people at Cambridge University say the definition of "notoriety" is, quite simply, the following (with an example of its use):

the state of being famous for something bad

He achieved/gained notoriety for being difficult to work with as an actor.

Virtually every other dictionary agrees with Cambridge that "notoriety" should be reserved for those who have achieved fame for doing bad or "notorious" things. You should follow their lead.

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