Of course everyone likes to flirt. For some of us flirting is our preferred method of communicating. We flirt constantly and confidently. Others among us flirt reluctantly, being too unsure of our flirting skills to display them publicly. Oftentimes we hope that the “flirtee” will go first. I am not going to try, in this Word Safari, to develop a program to improve your flirting skills. That would take us on a totally different sort of Safari. Instead we are simply going to trace the origins of the word flirt. Simply is perhaps not the right word since tracing the origin of flirt will involve some minor complications and detours*
Flirting, courting, and wooing often involve flowers. So it is not surprising to find that flirt comes from Old French fleureter which comes in turn from fleur, the word for flower. Fleureter was a verb meaning to move from flower to flower like a bee. Another related word was fleurette which emerged around 1200 and meant “little flower.” By the 1600’s, conter fleurette à une femme meant to whisper sweet nothings in a woman’s ear.
In the 1800’s, the noun flirt and the verb flirter were widely used throughout France, having been recently adopted from English. The verb flirter is used the same way in contemporary France as it is in the United States. There is a slight difference in how the noun flirt is used. In France un flirt is not a person; it refers to a brief romantic relationship. Although brief, this relationship typically goes somewhat beyond mere flirtation.
Rosenthal uses the following translation to illustrate the use of un flirt:
Elle a eu un flirt avec Jean. C’était son premier flirt. => She had a romantic relationship with Jean. It was her first such fling.
There are no French equivalents to the English words flirtation or flirtatious. Don’t try using them in French.
In English there are other uses for the word flirt:
- You can flirt or you can flit from flower to flower (remember the verb fleureter and the bees)**\
There are other uses in French too, Here’s one:
- Flirting can lead to more serious situations – Thus un flirt can sometimes refer to a randy man or woman.
Remember this: Flirting is Fun
*You may want to consult Saul H. Rosenthal’s French Words You Use Without Knowing It. The book goes into greater depth in discussing the etymological history of flirting and is the principal resource used in researching this Safari..
**Butterflies also flit from flower to flower. The French word for butterfly is le papillon. Although fleureter is no longer used in French you can use the verb papillonner which means to flit from one thing to another
*** I added this footnote because I wanted to express my opinion that papillon is one of the most beautiful words in French. Similarly the Spanish and Italian words for butterfly: la mariposa and la farfalla are among the most beautiful words in those languages. This reflects the fact that something as beautiful as a butterfly should have a beautiful name. It also reflects the beauty of romance languages.