Flimsy/filmsy
Posted: 21 May 2017 09:43 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I was curious about the origin of the word flimsy and my explorations on Google books found an example from an old book on synonyms, which was published in 1851: 

The word ‘flimsy’ affords another instance of a word which was formerly a slang expression; it was a corruption of film-sy. It would not be found in Johnson’s Dictionary.

I could not find another source that would verify or support this information. Does anyone know if this is verifiably accurate?

The OED or other dictionaries do not have an entry for filmsy used as flimsy, as in anything fragile as in, flimsy chair.

I did find; however, its use in Harper magazine (1955) from COHA

The string of suppositions seemed to become more than that. The filmsy structure built of wishful thinking took on solidity…

Any other information?

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Posted: 21 May 2017 10:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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“Flimsy” is a great adjective, both in its literal sense of “frail, insubstantial, delicate” and its figurative use to mean “frivolous, trivial and unconvincing,” as in “A hangnail is a pretty flimsy excuse for missing two weeks of work.” Interestingly, “flimsy” is also a noun, used since the early 19th century as slang for paper money and, since the mid-1800s, for very thin, translucent paper (also called “onionskin”) used to make copies in a typewriter using carbon paper.

“Flimsy” in its literal sense first appeared in English in the early 18th century, and appears to have been derived from the word “film” in the sense of “thin covering or membrane” (by definition “insubstantial”). The “i” and “l” of “film” were simply transposed, giving us “flim,” plus the ending “sy” on the model of “tipsy” and similar words.

source:  http://www.word-detective.com/2008/03/flimsy/

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Posted: 21 May 2017 11:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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cuchuflete - 21 May 2017 10:16 AM


“Flimsy” is a great adjective, both in its literal sense of “frail, insubstantial, delicate” and its figurative use to mean “frivolous, trivial and unconvincing,” as in “A hangnail is a pretty flimsy excuse for missing two weeks of work.” Interestingly, “flimsy” is also a noun, used since the early 19th century as slang for paper money and, since the mid-1800s, for very thin, translucent paper (also called “onionskin”) used to make copies in a typewriter using carbon paper.

“Flimsy” in its literal sense first appeared in English in the early 18th century, and appears to have been derived from the word “film” in the sense of “thin covering or membrane” (by definition “insubstantial”). The “i” and “l” of “film” were simply transposed, giving us “flim,” plus the ending “sy” on the model of “tipsy” and similar words.

source:  http://www.word-detective.com/2008/03/flimsy/

Thank you for the link;however, I’m interested in knowing whether filmsy was actually in use before flimsy actually took over. Is there any literature on filmsy being used,other than the Harper example?

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Posted: 21 May 2017 12:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Logophile - 21 May 2017 11:30 AM

Thank you for the link;however, I’m interested in knowing whether filmsy was actually in use before flimsy actually took over. Is there any literature on filmsy being used,other than the Harper example?

I haven’t tried to find a date for the earliest use of flimsy, but filmsy is in this 1810 publication:

Title A Military Dictionary, or explanation of the several systems of discipline of different kinds of troops, ... the principles of fortification, and all the modern improvements in the science of tactics, etc
Published 1810
Original from The British Library

See page 295.

There is an earlier instance, 1802.

Title Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Part 2
Contributor John Nichols
Publisher E. Cave, 1802

See P. 642

And, for what small amusement it may offer, this is wrong:

The word ‘flimsy’ affords another instance of a word which was formerly a slang expression; it was a corruption of film-sy. It would not be found in Johnson’s Dictionary. 

Johnson’s Dictionary does contain flimsy, defining it as “weak, slight, spiritless; mean”.

[ Edited: 21 May 2017 06:33 PM by cuchuflete ]

[My apologies. I tried to quote this post, but in my uncaffeinated state must have hit the edit button instead. I’ve tried to restore it and got the words back, but the formatting is screwed up. --dw]

[ Edited: 22 May 2017 04:55 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 21 May 2017 01:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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My Chambers Dictionary of Etymology has “flimsy” dated to 1702, adding to what Logophile posted. “Filmsy” is not listed.

[ Edited: 21 May 2017 01:36 PM by Eyehawk ]
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Posted: 21 May 2017 06:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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OED says:

Etymology: First recorded in 18th cent.; possibly (as Todd conjectured) an onomatopoeic formation suggested by film n. For the ending compare tipsy, bumpsy; also limpsy, given by Webster as a U.S. synonym of flimsy.(Show Less)

The notion that it derives from an unrecorded word “filmsy” appears to be purely speculative.

Also it seems that I don’t quite know what onomatopoeic means since 1) I thought it meant “relating to words imitative of sounds” and 2) “flimsy” doesn’t imitate any sound I can think of.

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Posted: 21 May 2017 09:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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And, for what small amusement it may offer, this is wrong:

“The word ‘flimsy’ affords another instance of a word which was formerly a slang expression; it was a corruption of film-sy. It would not be found in Johnson’s Dictionary. “

Johnson’s Dictionary does contain flimsy, defining it as “weak, slight, spiritless; mean”.

I believe the source I referred to, Princeton University, A Selection of English Synonyms, (1851) was asserting that Johnson’s Dictionary did not contain the word f-i-l-m-s-y., spelled with the letter i first.  I haven’t found a dictionary that does.

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Posted: 22 May 2017 05:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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filmsy is in this 1810 publication

No it’s not, that’s a scanning error; the actual text has “the flimsy texture of court adulation.” You can see an image here:

content?id=yjdkAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA295&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U0RYokNFRsNgxi4CNwE0EsjRms1tg&ci=511,804,397,162&edge=0

The combination -li- is particularly prone to such errors; I gave up trying to find an actual occurrence after clicking through several such “hits.” I doubt whether “filmsy” ever existed except either as a typo or a speculation.

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Posted: 22 May 2017 05:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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cuchuflete - 21 May 2017 12:16 PM

Logophile - 21 May 2017 11:30 AM

I haven’t tried to find a date for the earliest use of flimsy, but filmsy is in this 1810 publication:

Title A Military Dictionary, or explanation of the several systems of discipline of different kinds of troops, ... the principles of fortification, and all the modern improvements in the science of tactics, etc
Published 1810
Original from The British Library

See page 295.

There is an earlier instance, 1802.

Title Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Part 2
Contributor John Nichols
Publisher E. Cave, 1802

See P. 642

Both of these are OCR errors. If you look at the pages, the word in both cases is clearly flimsy, not filmsy.

I see no evidence of the existence of *filmsy, and I would mark it as unattested. This origin of flimsy is speculation without evidence. It’s a reasonable guess, but still just a guess.

Also note the OED entry for flimsy is 120 years old. That plus the odd use of onomatopoeic in the etymology makes me wary of trusting this particular entry.

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Posted: 22 May 2017 06:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I see no evidence of the existence of *filmsy, and I would mark it as unattested.

But Google Ngram does show usage. Although I agree, I’ve never read or heard filmsy.

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Posted: 22 May 2017 07:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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But Google Ngram does show usage.

Scanning errors.

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Posted: 25 May 2017 06:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Running “filmsy” through genealogybank produces over 600 hits, but the vast majority are OCR errors.  In some cases I can’t tell.  A few cases use what is undoubtedly “filmsy” to mean “flimsy.” Some of these are undoubtedly typographical errors, as “flimsy” is used in the same article.  Others use the word only once, and so are inconclusive.  I don’t find any article that uses “filmsy” for “flimsy” multiple times.

“Filmsy” is, however, undoubtedly a real word.  It occurs multiple times in the context of fabrics, often in advertisements for dry goods merchants.  Here are a few examples:

“For upholstering there are rich and heavy silk brocatelles at $10 a yard, while the filmsy fabric in imitation of India silk is as light in price as in weight.” Springfield, Massachusetts, Republican 12/21/1889

“The bridal veil, confined by a wreath of orange blossoms fell in filmsy folds over the graceful train.” Wheeling, West Virginia, Register 6/25/1890

“12,00 yards of the finest and most filmsy Lawns, 30 and 22 inches wide, in varying light effects and in all sorts of dark styles.” Washington, DC Evening Star 7/14/1898

“Dressing Sacques of every known material, from filmsy silks to the soft, warm eiderdown flannels.” San Jose, California, Evening News 10/27/1900

“The first purpose of the scarlet Socks Society, as explained by Mr. Koch to his assemblage of youngsters is to have the Brooklyn school children wear warm hose. At present he things they wear a too filmsy stocking.  Many, he believes, are kept away from school because they have not warm hosiery to wear.” Bellingham, Washington, Herald 5/10/1904

Here is a metaphorical use where I think “filmsy” works better than would “flimsy,” so I don’t think it is a typo:

“The greatest of physical paradoxes is the sunbeam.  It is the most potent and versatile force we have, and yet it behaves itself like the gentlest and most accommodating.  Nothing can fall more softly and silently upon the earth than the rays of our great luminary–not even the featherly flakes of snow, which thread their way through the atmosphere as if they were too filmsy to the demands of gravity like grosser things.” Alexandria, Virginia, Gazette 12/2/1871

There is semantic overlap between calling a light-weight fabric “filmsy” and calling it “flimsy.” The late 20th century examples could be taken either way, so might be typos.  The latest example I find with clearly positive connotations, and therefore not likely to be a typo for “flimsy,” it this:

“The Dior evening styles are elaborate but include many numbers in soft flowing chiffon with waving ostrich feather hemlines or sash ends or cuffs. Soft filmsy crepes and chiffons are treated to long sleeves, round necklines, and flowing circular skirts.” Baton Rouge Advocate 7/26/1968

So it seems to have been a real word, current in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, referring to film-like fabric.

This is, of course, unrelated to the purported etymology of “flimsy.”

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Posted: 25 May 2017 08:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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“Filmsy” is, however, undoubtedly a real word.  It occurs multiple times in the context of fabrics, often in advertisements for dry goods merchants.

Great research, I had a feeling it was actually a real word.

This is, of course, unrelated to the purported etymology of “flimsy.”

I agree; however, there now seems to be more credence to the Princeton University’s assertion.

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Posted: 25 May 2017 08:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Logophile - 25 May 2017 08:02 AM

I agree; however, there now seems to be more credence to the Princeton University’s assertion.

Except flimsy appears 150+ years before the earliest of these citations for filmsy.

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Posted: 25 May 2017 12:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Except flimsy appears 150+ years before the earliest of these citations for filmsy.

Could flimsy be a derivation from filmy, which has an entry date in the OED of 1583? Filmsy and filmy are almost identical excluding the one letter s for filmy.  Consequently, the two words flimsy and filmy have similar definitions.

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Posted: 25 May 2017 01:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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More likely it’s a variation on flim-flam, which goes back to the sixteenth century (the first element flim- + -sy, a diminutive suffix often used contemptuously). Flam has an independent life as a word meaning deceptive or fictitious. Flim does to, but it’s not attested to until later. That’s just a guess, but it’s plausible.

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