What is ‘flummery’?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: flummery….

When a friend recommended the book Conclave to me, I thought I was looking for a non-fiction work exploring the selection of a new Pope by the college of Cardinals. What I ended up with was radically different and far more entertaining: A novel written by former journalist and thriller writer, Robert Harris.

Although Harris began his career in nonfiction, his fame rests upon his works of historical fiction. In his first novel, a best-seller titled Fatherland, Harris imagined a world in which Germany had won the Second World War.

His second novel Enigma portrayed the breaking of the German Enigma code during the Second World War at Cambridge University and Bletchley Park. (It went on to become a major film starring Kate Winslet.)

As a thriller writer, Harris picked an interesting subject for Conclave. Published in 2016, the novel is set in the Vatican in the 72 hours leading up to the election of a fictional Pope. I found his writing reliable if a bit pedestrian, but the man understands plot and the novel is gripping.

Harris also gave me my word of the week, flummery. Here is how he used it:

These days the College of Cardinals was felt to be too large and too multinational for such Renaissance flummery.

From context, I could guess the meaning of the noun, confirmed by my dictionary: “empty compliments; nonsense.” But my exploration of its etymology surprised me. Dating back to the 1620s, it refers to a type of coagulated food and is derived from the Welsh llymru meaning “sour oatmeal jelly boiled with the husks.”  Later, it came to refer to a starch-based sweet and soft dessert pudding (think lemon snow or cheesecake) known to have been popular in Britain and Ireland from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

The current, figurative use, of empty talk, dates to the 1740s.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Aug. 9/17.

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