Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Monday, 1 June 2009

June 2009

Flip larking
As may be expected of a word associated with acrobatic movement, the word flip has not stood still over the past few centuries. This versatile word can be used as a simple noun, meaning a rapid jerk, a movement similar to a somersault, or a snap or tap (usually with the fingers). It can also be a transitive verb, meaning to throw or flick an object so that it turns or spins in the air (for example flipping a coin, flipping burgers), to propel by a sudden movement of the finger (flipping a switch), or to quickly read or look at a book, newspaper, etc. (flip through a magazine). In the US, the transitive verb sense has also extended from flipping a burger to include flipping a state. Disappointingly, this is only in the figurative sense, and indicates a switch in a state's primary political allegiance between Democrat and Republican parties.

Flip has also the capacity to be used as an intransitive verb, meaning for small objects to move or bounce jerkily. This intransitive sense provides in turn two slang senses describing an intensely emotional reaction: to fly into a rage or make an emotional outburst (in the phrases flip one's lid or flip one's wig) or to become ecstatic or very excited (for example, flipping out — possibly over the flip side of a vinyl record). And that's not all: a person could perform a backflip, or use a flip chart while wearing flip-flops (in the sense of 'footwear'; see below for more on the sense of 'governmental indecision'). Flip can also be used as a profanity substitute in the UK, to stand in for the f-bomb when in polite company, and is occasionally heard absurdly dubbed onto TV or airline versions of films (taken to its logical extreme by the unforgettable "Flip you, melonfarmer!" from Repo Man, 1984). And, if profanity substitutes fail you, you can always flip [someone] the bird (by extending a middle finger skyward).

Flip's origins are most likely imitative (or a contraction) of fillip, a word dating back to the 16th century that means something that adds stimulation or enjoyment, or the action of holding a finger towards the palm with the thumb and suddenly releasing it outwards to produce a snapping sound. However, as an adjective, flip is used to describe something impertinent or glib. This use has a separate etymology from the verb sense and is derived from flippant.

Flip your Whig?
The most recent acrobatic feats performed by flip were in the political big top, using the hot topics of property and parliamentary expenses as springboards. Flipping can be used transitively to describe the buying and quick resale of property, to make a profit. This usage originated from US real estate parlance, but is now used widely in the UK. Politically speaking, flip was until recently most closely associated with the act of flip-flopping (that is, the reversal of a political stance). Yet in the wake of the furore over UK MPs and their expenses claims, an interesting new meaning has come into currency (no pun intended). MPs who changed the designation of a property, either in London or in their constituency, to take advantage of the now-infamous second homes allowance are already being described as having flipped their property. And there you have it: a rapid change in meaning over a very short time (performed without a net). Ta da!

So what next for flip? Personally, I hope one of its less well-known noun senses comes back into fashion, namely a warm 17th-century drink consisting of a mixture of beer and sugar (if only to see the advertising campaign: "You'll flip out for flip"? "There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the flip"...?).

Duncan Black - Editor