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SUCH `HIGHFALUTIN' WORDS ARE NOT CONSIDERED SLANG

Question: I'm not sure how to spell it, but I'm interested in the origin of the slang word "hi-fellutin," meaning, I believe, "pretentious." Is it only 1950s cowboys that say this?

Answer: The word you're wondering about (usually spelled "highfalutin") isn't just a feature of cowpoke talk. It's been part of our language since 1839 and is still going strong. We have an overflow of evidence for the word in our files - it seems to have been used by just about everyone and in all possible contexts.

Its derivation isn't known with absolute certainty. One theory is that the word comes from the adverb "high" plus an alteration of "fluting," the present participle of the verb "flute" (meaning "to play a flute" or "to make a flutelike sound"). Another theory, given in the Oxford English Dictionary, is that the "falutin" part is "a grandiose equivalent" of "flying" or "flown." Many of those who use the word do seem to interpret it as descending from a verb - it's often written with a final apostrophe or even as "highfaluting" - but that doesn't really shed any light on its origin.

Incidentally, we don't label "highfalutin" as "slang" in our dictionaries. With a history of usage extending back more than 150 years, and with examples of its use in our files from such august publications as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, to name only two, it's clear that this word is just too . . . well . . . highfalutin to deserve such a label.

Question: When I was young we were taught that it was correct grammar to "wait for" someone, whereas to "wait on" someone was to be a waitress, waiter, store clerk, or person who gives service. Am I wrong? It disturbs me that words like "wait on" seem to catch on so quickly.

Answer: The use of "wait on" to mean "wait for" is actually not a new use that has caught on quickly, but rather is a very old use that has refused to die out despite criticism from 20th-century schoolteachers and grammar handbooks. Our evidence shows that this sense of "wait on" is especially prevalent in, but not limited to, the Southern United States. It is not dialectal, however; it can be found in standard and widely circulated printed sources.

"Wait for" continues to be considerably more common, as it has been since the 18th century, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with "wait on."