Flibbertigibbet, a will-‘o-the-wisp, a clown

The misunderstanding

In the heat of a moment, and what I thought was great foolhardiness, I called my wife a flibbertigibbet. I was cross with her for trying to do too many things at once and consequently getting nothing done. Surprisingly, she took it quite well, which made me think I had, perhaps, misunderstood what I was saying.

My wife, as a disciple of The Sound of Music (the 1959 musical), equated it with the gentle criticism aimed at the main character, Maria (Julie Andrew’s character), by the nuns who sing about Maria as:

A flibbertigibbet, a will-‘o-the-wisp, a clown …

The meaning of flibbertigibbet

I had to look it up. The meaning (according to the Macquarie Dictionary) is a chattering or flighty person usually a young girl. How had I got away with that?
A bit more research, however, showed that it is a quite an old word with more evil connotations. Cotgrave in his English-French dictionary of 1611 uses it to describe a coquette:

coquette: a prattling or proud gossip; a fisking, or fliperous minx, a cocket, or tatling housewife; a titifill, a flebergebit.

(I better not let this fall into my wife’s hands or I really will be in trouble).

A short word history of flibbertigibbet

I suppose one should not be surprised that flibbertigibbett appears in Shakespeare. In King Lear (1606), Edgar, a character disguised as a mad beggar shouts:

This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet: he begins at curfew and walks till the first cock … and hurts the poor creature of Earth.

Shakespeare had taken the name and the character from Harsnett’s wonderfully-titled, protestant polemic, Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603). Harsnett had described 40 fiends that the Jesuits cast out …

… and among their number was Fliberdigibet.

The word had appeared before this in a 1549 sermon by Hugh Latimer to the Protestant boy-king, Edward VI:

And when these flatterers, and flybbergybes an other daye shall come and clawe you by the backe and say …

(Latimer was one of the three Protestant bishops burnt at the stake in Oxford for blasphemy by Mary Queen of Scots, who was definitely not a Protestant).
Flibbertigibbet was never likely to disappear and Walter Scott introduces an impish, mischievous, and flighty character called Flibbertigibbet to his novel, Kenilworth in 1821. The word, through this character, became synonymous with Puck (see Hobgoblin).

The story of Wayland and Flibbertigibbet

I was very pleased to find that there is a flibbertigibbet story associated with Wayland’s Smithy, a place I have visited several times on the ancient Ridgeway, in Wiltshire, not too far from Stonehenge. Wayland’s Smithy is a long barrow (a neolithic religious structure) named for the German Blacksmith God and brimming with local folklore.

The best-known story (related in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays 1857) says that a traveller whose horse has lost a shoe can leave it with a small silver coin (either a groat or a sixpence) at the Smithy overnight and the horse will be reshod by the morning.

However, the more important and less well-known story tells that Wayland had an apprentice called Flibbertigibbet. Flibbertigibbett greatly annoyed his master until eventually Wayland hurled him as far as he could down the valley into a field which is now called Snivelling Corner. When he landed he turned into a stone, which is still there—believe it or not!

The conclusion

I got away with calling my wife a flibbertigibbet this once, but I think I may be pushing my luck to try again—there is a strong risk I will end up in Snivelling Corner.