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Flautist or Flutist?

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A reader asks about the most appropriate word to use when referring to a person who plays the flute.

I write on musical matters, so would appreciate advice on how to write flutist…Many presenters of classical music programmes pronounce the word as “floortist”. Is flutist correct & is is there another written form?

I can’t comment on the pronunciation “floortist” other than to say that I’ve never heard flutist or flautist pronounced in that way.

The three most common terms I’m familiar with are:
flutist [(flū’tĭst)]
flautist [flô’tĭst, flou’-]
flute player

I’ve read that flautist is the preferred British usage. To American ears it sounds pretentious, but ironically, the earliest use of flautist given in the OED is from the work of an American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The Italian word for flute is flauto and the 1860 novel in which the word appears, The Marble Faun, is set in Italy. The choice flautist over flutist may have been prompted by Hawthorne’s desire to add local color.

My Middle English dictionary gives floute and floutour for “flute” and “flute player.” My edition of Chaucer gives flowte and floyte for “flute,” flowtour for “flute player,” and floytynge for “playing on the flute.”

I’ve played in a flute choir. We called ourselves flutists and flute players.

According to a factoid at NationMaster.com, world-renowned flute virtuoso Sir James Galway has this to say on the matter:

I am a flute player, not a flautist. I don’t have a flaut, and I’ve never flauted.”

Thanks to Richard Shackleton for post idea.

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21 thoughts on “Flautist or Flutist?”

  1. Well, in Spanish and Italian we still say flauta, and in Old French it was also flaute. English and other Germanic languages adopted the term at around that time, as well as the derived flautista/flautiste. The term flutist came to English much later, probably again influenced by the French flutist after the old form flaute changed to floute.

    In modern English the terms developed to flute and both flautist and flutist, although the second one is much ‘younger’.

  2. By ‘floortist’ your reader can’t, surely, have meant the ‘r’ to be sounded. As a Brit – heavens, i say that a lot here! – i pronounce floor exactly the same as flaw.

    And i’ve only ever heard flautist pronounced ‘flawtist’.

    AND i’ve never, ever come across flutist. Well, maybe once, and i’d have dismissed it as ignorance. Sorry, USA!

    My New Penguin qualifies flutist as ‘chiefly NAm and refers me to flautist. My Collins English calls it a variant spelling, ‘Now chiefly U.S.’. That ‘now’ tells me flutist used to be a more equal alternative over here.

    Good ol’ Noah Webster and his simplifying.

    (Both my dictionaries, btw, give only the ‘flaw’ (unflawed, lol) pronunciation for flautist.)

    I love happening upon a divergence between UK and US English that i haven’t found before. Thanx! 80)

  3. As a ‘flautist’ myself, I’ve always wondered what I should tell people to call me. My uncle has said ‘flautist’, but all my friends go “what’s that?” My band director has said ‘flutist’, and so have most of my other instructors.

    I usually say flautist because flutist sounds weird to me. I think it all comes down to personal preference.

    And anyway, in band, usually you refer to people merely by their instrument: “Hey, flutes, you’re about five yards away from where you need to be.” ^.^

  4. As another Brit, I would like to fully agree with mand!

    Over here it is mainly “flautist” very occasionally “flute player” but NEVER, EVER, “flutist”

    One could almost be ostracised from polite society for using such an expression! 🙂

  5. Mand,
    Your comment reminded me of an occasion when I was teaching in junior high. A parent complained to me about another teacher who had given her child a spelling test and marked a word incorrect that the parent felt should have been given credit.

    The child had written “flow.”
    The teacher insisted that she’d dictated the word “floor.”

  6. As a flute player, I’ve always said that any gig that pays over $50 makes me a flautist — below that, a flutist.

  7. You’d think so. My procedure for giving a spelling test is to say the word, use it in a sentence, and say the word again. I was told that the teacher in question merely said the word without providing context.

  8. Good old Douglas Harper . I had been thinking flute came from something to do with flow, but it seems it’s from blow – though (i can’t stop n look it up now) i wouldn’t be surprised if flow and blow are related.

    Lorrie, lol but what are Flautas?

    And Suzanne, we wouldn’t dream of saying British English is posher? … Would we? … ;0)

  9. The word “flautist” is derived from the Italian term for a flute player, “flautista.” “Flautist” is commonly used in Britain, where there were periodic crazes for all things Italian; an early instance of this was the wild popularity of Handel’s Italian operas when he first settled in London. Flutist is generally used in the U.S.

    In every other language, the term for a flute player is the word for flute plus a modifying suffix (e.g., in French, flûte, therefore flûtiste). Therefore, I think “flautist” is a bit affected. However, if one is to insist that British English is the standard, I assume that “vitamin” is pronouced “vit-uh-min,” that words such as “colour” and “grey” must always be spelled as per British usage. In short, I refuse to be held to the standard of British English for the word for the instrument that has been my life’s work.

  10. Don, i’m glad you ‘refuse to be held to the standard of British English’. (Assuming you’re not British yourself.) Was anyone trying to insist on it?

    In my view, British English is one dialect, and not the majority dialect of English in the world. It certainly is the majority dialect in Britain, so those of us whose native dialect it is can offer our experience of words here.

    As i said in comment 2, ‘I love happening upon a divergence’. :0)

  11. mand:

    If I sound a bit “shirty” (a British colloquialism), it’s because I have had a number of people try to tell me (regardless of that I’ve played the flute for 40+ years, am ABD on a doctoral level degree in music and have several rave reviews in The New York Times) that flautist is correct, and that I am wrong.

    I actually agree that divergences in dialect are really quite wonderful, and that the increasing homogeneity of language is not necessarily good. Just don’t insist that one dialect is correct!

  12. Sounds like we agree after all. :0) Thank goodness.

    I honestly had never heard anything but ‘flautist’ except from children who hadn’t yet come across that word, so this whole blogpost and comment thread have been very interesting to me.

    And thanx – i didn’t know ‘shirty’ was a Brit thing. (You’ve got me collared with that, so i’ll button up now.)

  13. Last note, several years later: the pronunciation of the British “flautist” is actually flaw-tist according to the OED, not flou (like “flour”)-tist. I think I’ll stick with “flute player.” “c)

  14. Well I’m not a flute player, neither an American nor a Brit. But I would like to use the word Flautist coz i like the way it sounds. Flutist sounds kinda funny, so as somebody said it all comes down to personal preference!! But the problem is you’ll always bump into ppl who love to correct you, just to show they’re smarter! 😛 And for these ppl you hv to keep reffering google!! 😀

  15. On another note regarding pronunciation, I’m a piano player, and some people refer to those who play the piano as pianists. I cringe when I hear it pronounced “Pee-a-nist”, because it sounds like you are saying something that sounds like a certain male body part. I usually pronounce it “Pee-ann-ist”, or “Pee-ah-nist”, since I play a “Pee-ah-no” or a “Pee-ann-o”. You wouldn’t call it a “pee-a-no”, would you? If someone were to describe me, I’d say I’m a “Piano player”, since that’s pretty easy to understand. Does anybody agree with me on this one?

  16. If you are an American you are a flutist. If you are Italian or Spanish you are a fluatist. Other countries vary.

  17. Flautist is a strange hybrid of Italian with an English suffix; not only that, but the British do not pronounce the first vowel as an Italian would (to rhyme with “now”) but more like the “au” in French (to rhyme with “flow”).

    What an odd mash-up of languages. I refer to my colleagues as “flute players.” Glad to hear that Galway feels the same.

  18. If you live in GB, Spain, France, or Italy and play the “flute” and want to be called a “flautist” mostly because the word was romanticized in an 1860 Hawthorne novel, so be it. My theory or 100 in this subject is; the 19th century was an age of romance in the arts. Those involved in the arts were usually upper class citizens. I think this class of citizen, a lot snobbery here, kept the tag “flautist” because it sounded snobby to them at the time. Two gentlemen talking outside the Bijou theater in New York City, “oh yes I’m a Flautist, don’t you know?” The other gentlemen replies, “No, not really.” And the first gentlemen says, “oh dear me, sir. I play the flute in the orchestra.” To which the second gentleman replied, “why didn’t you say that in the first place?” GB musicians used have a reputation for snobbery, especially towards Americans.
    Here in America, if you play the flute, then call yourself a FLUTIST. Not some romanticized title that began back in 1860. People, fellow Americans. this is 2019! Be proud to be a Flutist!

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