flop, flip-flop

In the midst of his 2004 presidential campaign, Senator John Kerry said of his vote on funding for the war in Iraq, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.” This may be one of the most bald-faced and succinct examples of flip-flopping in American politics, but it is hardly the first. Flip-floppers, or simply floppers, as they were originally known, have been so-called for over a century, but they’ve been around under other names for a lot longer.

The verb to flop, a variation of to flap, dates to the early nineteenth century. (There are a few isolated examples from the seventeenth century, but the word doesn’t really start getting used until the later date.) The verb essentially means the same as to flap, only more clumsily and heavily. An early example is in John Clare’s poem “January” in his 1827 collection The Shepherd’s Calendar:

They flop on heavy wings away.

By 1880, the word was being used as a noun to mean a sudden change in a political position, presumably taking its cue from flip, rather than flap. On 22 November 1880, the New York World printed this about New York Assemblyman Charles R. Skinner:

Mr. Skinner’s apparent flop on the railroad question is injuring his chances in the Speakership struggle.

A few months earlier, flopper had made its appearance in the 8 June 1880 Cleveland Leader, referring to someone who had abandoned his political party for the opposition:

On the twenty-fifth ballot the Florida flopper went to Sherman.

Even then, flopping by politicians was not looked upon with favor. And it is no surprise that at the time the slang term flopper had an even darker sense, that of a cheater or swindler. Famed western writer Bret Harte writes in his 1876 novel Gabriel Conroy:

It is worthy of a short-card sharp and a keno flopper.

The addition of flip to flop happens by the 1890. So on 13 July of that year, the Chicago Tribune could write:

Mr. Ericksen’s friends in the twenty-third executed a flip-flop, and [...] went over to Michael Francis in a body.

The verb to flip-flop is in place by 1924.

Linguists call this doubling of a syllable, often with a vowel or consonant change, reduplication, and it is a very productive method of word formation. Similar examples of reduplication are helter-skelter, harum-scarum, and flim-flam.

There are other senses of flop. The verb meaning to sleep, presumably from flopping down onto a bed, dates to 1907, when it appears in Jack London’s The Road. The noun meaning a bed appears a few years later, and flop-house by 1923. The sense of the word meaning a failure is a bit older, being recorded in Farmer and Henley’s 1893 slang dictionary, and the verb to flop, meaning to collapse or fail, is used by P. G. Wodehouse in 1919. The plastic and rubber sandal, dubbed a flip-flop, is recorded from 1958. And the name for first three communal cards in hold ‘em poker is a relative newcomer; that flop wasn’t flipped until 1973.


Sources:

“flop, v.,” “flop, n.1,” “flopper, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989. (With draft additions—the poker sense—from March 2006.)

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