Poking holes in pretentiousness with ‘highfalutin’

There are plenty of words that can be used to poke fun at pretentiousness. Let’s take a look at the wonderful highfalutinhoity-toity, and la-di-da!


There are plenty of SAT-level words to describe someone who persistently quotes “Paradise Lost” and likes to open the top of his or her Maserati convertible in the school pickup line. Pretentious, ostentatious, pompous, vainglorious, or grandiose might come to mind. But there are also a number of folksy, colloquial words that strike a blow against Latinate high diction, poking fun at pretension even while defining it. Let’s take a look at the wonderful highfalutin, hoity-toity, and la-di-da!

Highfalutin, meaning “pretentious” or “artificially elevated in style,” was first used in the early 19th century. It was primarily spoken slang, and when people wrote it down, they had to sound it out. Even today we can’t agree on how to spell it. It is most often found without the final “g,” however, as befitting its colloquial tone. Adding the “g” risks sounding, well, highfalutin, as Victorian poet James Russell Lowell demonstrated when he described something he’d read as “not so highfaluting (let me dare the odious word!) as the modern style.”

Its etymology is disputed. One theory holds that it comes from the Yiddish hifelufelem: “extravagant language; nonsense.” Another contends that it derives from high-flown. British broadcaster Melvyn Bragg argues creatively, but probably wrongly, that it embodies the class divisions found on 19th-century American steamboats: “On board the bigger boats the richer travellers were called ‘highfalutin’ because of the high fluted smokestacks that carried the soot and cinders well away from the passengers.” 

I had always thought that hoity-toity came from “toit haut,” French for “high roof.” It would be poetic if this term meaning “snobby” or “pretentious” came from a funny, rhyming mispronunciation of French words. In fact, though, its ancestor is hoit (which also gave us hoyden), an Old English word meaning “to romp inelegantly,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. Like highfalutin, hoity-toity was at first spelled any number of ways, indicating that it, too, was slang. 

La-di-da actually is a mispronunciation, or rather a mocking imitation, of upper-class British English. Such “posh” accents drop the /r/ sound in most words, so that “roar” sounds just like “raw” and “car” like “cah.” La-di-da uses the speech patterns of the upper classes to critique their mannerisms, since it means “affectedly or pretentiously elegant or refined in manners or tastes.” The word is usually an adjective: “The dinner intimidated everyone with its la-di-da place setting – seven utensils, five glasses, and a finger bowl.” 

I am most familiar with it, though, as an interjection. Whenever my mother thought teenage me was putting on airs, she’d bring me back to earth with a “Well, la-di-da!”

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