You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: footling

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a moderately obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar — another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary. This week's word:


English provides ample vocabulary to identify the trivial: nugatory, trifling, frivolous. And it offers more than a few words to mark what irritates us: bothersome, exasperating, irksome, vexing. But when we want to say that something is trivial and irritating, we have footling (pronounced FOUT-ling or FOOT-ling).

The word is chiefly British, deriving from footle, as a verb meaning to act or talk foolishly, to waste time, and as a noun meaning twaddle or nonsense. Footle may derive from the dialect footer, “to screw around,” and ultimately from the French foutre, “to have sexual intercourse with.” (The dictionaries nearest to hand do not give the monosyllabic English equivalent.)

Example: Robert J, Powers, in a letter to the editor of The American Spectator in April 2013: “Contemporaries referred to Gilbert Becket’s son as Thomas of London, Thomas the Archdeacon, Chancellor, Archbishop-according to the office he held at any given time. After death he was known as Thomas the Martyr. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the preposition a (from the Latin a, meaning of) crept into the name by analogy with such names as William atta Beck and Thomas Kempis. I hardly think such simple facts deserve the epithet ‘footling pedantry,’ ”

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