Question: I've heard the word "patronize" used to mean "to provide for," "to condescend toward" and "to be a customer of." How did this word get so many different meanings?Answer: To understand how "patronize" acquired so many seemingly disconnected senses, it helps to take a look at the word "patron" itself. In the 14th century, when the word was borrowed into English from French, "patron" already had several meanings, the most common of which was "a person chosen, named, or honored as a special guardian protector, or supporter." This use clearly gave rise to the "provide aid or support for" sense of "patronize" when this verb entered English in the late 16th century.

The "condescend" sense of "patronize" first appeared around the end of the 18th century and in all likelihood alludes to the air of superiority typically assumed by patrons towards their clients. The word may have been influenced in particular by the use of "patron" to refer to a wealthy or influential supporter of an artist or writer. This specific sense of "patron" enjoyed widespread use in the 17th and 18th centuries, right around the time when the "condescend" sense of "patronize" emerged.

Soon after its first appearance in the 14th century, "patron" also came to mean "one who uses wealth or influence to help an individual, institution or cause" - another logical extension of the orig-i-nal "supporter" sense. By the 19th century merchants and tradesmen had extended this sense of the term further, using "patron" as a synonym for "customer." (Perhaps by suggesting that their customers were wealthy and influential these businessmen expected to increase their sales!) Ever since, usage commentators have condemned this use of "patron" as affected and inaccurate, arguing that patrons and customers have little in common. The usage has persisted, however, as has the related use of "patronize" to mean "to be a customer or client of," which also dates to the 19th century.

Question: Please explain the origin of the phrase "high floutin." Is it related to the verb "flout" in any way?

Answer: The word you are thinking of is usually spelled "highfalutin" and pronounced "hi-fuh-LOOT-in." It means "pretentious," "pompous," or "expressed in high-flown, bombastic language." You'll find it used in sentences like "For an English nobleman he lacked the typical aristocratic bearing and the highfalutin way of talking."

"Highfalutin" is a word that was spoken long before it was ever written down. In fact, its odd written form is largely the result of attempts to spell out the word according to its pronunciation. Because there is no record of its first spoken use, we cannot be absolutely certain of its origin. But judging from the evidence we do have, it is most likely that "highfalutin" formed from the adverb "high" and an alteration of "fluting," the present participle of the verb "flute."

Phonetically, the transformation from "high-fluting" to "highfalutin" is easy to explain. It involves two very common linguistic changes. The first, called epenthesis, is the intrusion of a sound in the body of a word, in this case the sound "uh" between "f" and "loot." (A similar example of epenthesis is the variant pronunciation "ath-uh-leet" for "athlete.") The second change involves the simplified pronunciation of an unstressed ending, in this case "-ing" pronounced "in."

The semantic relation of "highfalutin" to "fluting" is also worth noting, though it isn't nearly as straightforward as the phonetic connection. We have considerable evidence of "fluting" being used to describe the human voice in sentences like "Her voice was sweet and fluting as a bird." And it is not difficult to see how pompous talk might mockingly be characterized as having a high-toned, musical quality. (In fact, one meaning of "high-toned" is "pretentious or pompous.") Nor is it uncommon for the sound of arrogant speech to blow metaphorically from a wind instrument. Consider the informal phrase "to toot one's own horn," meaning "to boast or brag."

You can be fairly certain that "highfalutin" does not derive from "flout." The very specific meaning of "flout" - "to scorn or treat with contemptuous disregard" - and its contrasting pronunciation make it an unlikely source. However, "highfalutin" and "flout" are not completely without historical connection. "Flout" comes from Middle English "flouten," which means "to play the flute" and, as you might have guessed, is also the direct ancestor of the Modern English verb "flute."