In The Life of Pi, the eponymous Pi compares animals in the wild to animals in a zoo, saying, “Animals in the wild are, in practice, free neither in space nor in time, nor in their personal relations. In theory – that is, as a simple physical possibility – an animal could pick up and go, flaunting all social conventions and boundaries proper to its species.”
Whoops. Yann Martel, the book’s author, is an undeniably gifted writer, but the sentence above contains a usage error. You see, the word “flaunt” means “to exhibit or show off something in an ostentatious manner.” A peacock flaunts his feathers and a socialite might flaunt her wealth, but why on earth would an animal show off all social conventions?
The word that Mr. Martel was looking for is flout, which means “to show contempt for or to scorn.” One might certainly flout social conventions; one might even flout rules (though, as educators, we strongly advise following the rules).
Most people wouldn’t chastise Yann Martel for his misuse of the word flaunt because, at least in recent years, the incorrect usage has become widely accepted. Both flaunt and flout appeared in the 16th century; flaunt came from unknown origins and flout is believed to have derived from the Middle English word “flouten” which meant “the play the flute” and was used idiomatically to mean “to mock or jest.” For centuries, the words meant totally different things. Then, in the 20th century, the use of the word flaunt to mean “disregard” began cropping up in print. The misuse of flaunt has become so common that many dictionaries now list “to disregard” as one of the word’s meanings – even though that’s incorrect.
Although it is apparently acceptable now to use flaunt incorrectly, it is important to know and understand the difference between flaunt and flout. To flaunt is to show off proudly; to flout is to disregard. You may never use the words in your own writing, but you can expect to see them crop up on tests like the SAT!