Fleshing Out and Flushing Out

By Maeve Maddox

Suzanne Baal notes:

[an] error that I’ve been hearing lately is “flesh it out” vs “flush it out”.

I couldn’t find any examples on the web of “flesh it out” being confused with “flush it out,” but I did find numerous comments made by people who say they’ve heard the error:

My last two bosses always talked of flushing out plans… I never took the opportunity to correct them (and neither did anyone else, apparently). It drives me nuts when people use phrases that they don’t understand!

…one of my lecturers often interchanges them [flesh out and flush out] though it’s obvious he’s meaning “flesh out.”

I hear this CONSTANTLY among my colleagues and can hardly sit still and not correct them. Flush, this flush that…they mean flesh!!!

In the discussions I browsed, many of the commentators seemed to associate only one meaning with flush, that of flushing a toilet.

Flesh Out vs. Flush Out–Either way it’s disgusting

Here’s the thing–flush it out only makes sense if your getting rid of something, and start all over.

First, let’s look at the expression “to flesh out.”

As a verb, flesh has several meanings, but in the figurative phrase “to flesh out,” it means to add details to something that exists only in a preliminary, incomplete form. The metaphor is that of a skeleton or framework being built up with flesh or clay.

To flesh out the complex arrangements, several studio musicians were brought in to read a heavily doctored score

I remember saying I would do some character designs and begin to perhaps flesh out some ideas in writing for the beginning of the new story arc.

O’Connor has fleshed out his sound to create something truly inspiring

The OED has ten entries for the word flush. Here I’m concerned with only two meanings of flush as a verb.

Flush, in the sense of moving water, comes from a Latin verb meaning “to flow.” We use it to mean “to cause water to flow,” as in flushing the toilet.

Let children flush the toilet …so they aren’t afraid of the noise.

Do not teach your cat to flush

Flush can also mean “to cleanse,” usually by a rush of water.

I was told that we need to flush out our coolant…

…products that remove ear wax may include a rubberized bulb for flushing out residue. …

This diet flushed out whatever was going on,

Another meaning of flush is “to cause to fly up” This flush is not connected with the Latin word for “to flow.” Its origin is uncertain. It could be a imitative of the sound of rustling wings. In pheasant hunting, the hiding birds are “flushed” by men called beaters.

Like me, you’ve probably seen movies with scenes set on English country estates where the local farmers form a line to flush the birds so that the gentry can shoot at them.

…they waited for an almost solid line of beaters to flush the game toward them. …

…most woodcock shooting in Ireland is of the walked-up variety where it is more likely that birds will be flushed in groups rather than individually.

The hunting term flush is often used figuratively:

Robbers Flushed Out After Gun Battle With Police

CIA chief hopeful of flushing out Osama

This headline plays on the meaning of both kinds of “flush”:

Cops Flush Out Suspect from Sewage Hideout

To sum up:
You flesh out a plan.
You flush toilets and flush out toxins.
You flush out game or people who are in hiding.

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9 Responses to “Fleshing Out and Flushing Out”

  • Mike Feeney

    At a former employer, we once had visitors from a foreign country. My boss repeatedly mentioned that they would be using an “interpretator.” I had a hard time keeping a straight face.

  • Rod

    interpretator sounds like a film reminds me of the governator of California

  • Roberta B.

    Rather than “to add details” or put flesh on a skeleton (metaphorically), it seems to me to “flesh out” means to strip down to full exposure in order to identify all of the positives and negatives. I first heard the term almost 30 years ago. I didn’t get it then – thought they were saying “flush.” I get it now, but still don’t like the expresion. It’s one of those business terms that implies the user is cutting edge. Maybe one day it won’t sound so cool.

  • Ivan

    RE: Roberta B.

    I first heard it from my professor when he was trying to explain a concept to me. I first thought he was saying “flush,” but I later realized it was “flesh” – the use of the word really puzzled me. Now, after hearing it for so many years from him and other professors, it feels natural to use the phrase in academic settings.

  • Roberta B.

    [correction]…….It’s one of those business and academic terms that implies the user is cutting edge or intellectual. Maybe one day it won’t sound so cool or smart.

  • rich

    great article Suzanne, but BOTH can be CORRECT. You found the relevant definition for FLUSH but didn’t link it to the correct usage. Birds, answers to problems, may be hidden and therefore need to be FLUSHED out. Or as the book “Common Errors in English Usage: The Book” (2nd Edition, November, 2008) puts it:

    To “flesh out” an idea is to give it substance, as a sculptor adds clay flesh to a skeletal armature. To “flush out” a criminal is to drive him or her out into the open. The latter term is derived from bird-hunting, in which one flushes out a covey of quail. If you are trying to develop something further, use “flesh”; but if you are trying to reveal something hitherto concealed, use “flush.”

  • Say What You Like

    People get so crazy about this sort of thing. Chill grammar police! Besides, either can work. “Flush out the details” could mean getting those pesky little details out of their hiding spaces and into the open. Also, you can be arrested for “fleshing out” in public, so be careful!

  • Tyler

    Isn’t it possible the adjectival form of “flush” is contributing to this confusion? (Completely level or even with another surface: “the gates are flush with the adjoining fencing”.) “Flush” actually means “full” in various contexts. It would have been interesting to see that aspect explored.

  • Danny

    I always interpreted flushed out as in a completion and the final touches. As in the plywood is flush against the 2×4. Or the toilet sits flush to the ground. Or the ceiling light is flush with the ceiling. To me this idea expresses the completion of a specific relationship between one thing to another as in. Let flush this idea out so that it works seamlessly with the bigger story. Making things work together.

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