3

I have no doubt I will prevail here, but you may not think my thicker skin is the proper reformation of an Ohio son. The men here are rough, they grunt and growl and guard their plates with their arms. Now I reach past my neighbor, and grunt, too, and shove, too, and I would cuss just for the pleasure of saying something out loud. I don’t believe I have said more than ten words since I came to this place. I realize any oath I might devise would pale next to the colorful flannel they run up here…

Quoted from here

I found this meaning of flannel: (informal Brit) indirect or evasive talk; deceiving flattery.

So, does in this context "flannel they run up" mean an evasive talk or lies they say (run up)?

7
  • 1
    It could be a reference to flags made of flannel cloth: flags are run up a flagpole.
    – Lambie
    Feb 17 at 19:31
  • This is not about flannel shirts. One doesn't run up flannel shirts.
    – Lambie
    Feb 17 at 19:45
  • @Lambie - people adept at sewing can run up garments (make them). "Time was when you could run up a shirt blouse in an afternoon, and use two yards of material". Feb 17 at 19:54
  • 2
    The two sentences prior to this are: "California has been the occasion for disappointment since the 1850s, since men wrote home from the gold fields, from Auburn, from Tulare or Sonora, from tree stumps and tent-hotels." The writer is an American, which argues for the word flannel meaning an item of clothing; he could not create an oath that would be as colorful as what the others wore around him. Feb 17 at 20:48
  • @MichaelHarvey Maybe. It's hard to say, really.
    – Lambie
    Feb 17 at 22:17

1 Answer 1

6

The most important point: This is not an everyday modern usage. This passage is from a personal letter written more than a century ago. The writer uses many informal or slang constructions, but he isn't writing for us as his audience. Whoever he wrote the letter to was presumably familiar with his usages and understood perfectly well. We're also hampered by the fact that historical colloquialisms can be harder to pin down than formal usages (consider the difficulty of using this similarly informal "letter home" as a source to document the phrase "freckle past a hair"!).

Second point: The context can help us a lot. Overall, this passage is about the writer's discomfort with the lack of manners and cultivated discourse in the "wild west" and his attempts to match his peers' "rough" ways. Here is a broad paraphrase, attempting to amplify what he leaves implied and update dated usages:

I have no doubt I will do well out here despite my challenges, but you might not think the coarseness I've developed is proper for someone brought up "back East," in a more urban and sophisticated setting. The men here are rough, they grunt and growl and have no polished table manners; for instance, they guard their plates with their arms. Now I too reach past my neighbor instead of asking politely for food to be passed, and grunt, too, and shove, too, and I am almost inclined to use profanity just for the pleasure of actually communicating, saying something out loud. There is not a lot of stimulating conversation here: I don’t believe I have said more than ten words since I came to this place. I realize my attempts at profanity might be embarrassing around these "experts"; any swear words I might devise would pale next to the colorful gobbledygook they traffic in up here…

As you can see, my guess about the final sentence is that it is continues the writer's characterization of his peers' speech as inarticulate and unpolished. I'll offer some support for this reading below, but without sources that address this time and place more directly, we can't be certain. If I find such sources I'll update this answer.


"Flannel" seems to be used here to mean conversation, especially a dismissive term that suggests that the speech doesn't amount to much. It's significant that all the dictionaries I'm about to list label the usage as British. We have no indication that the letter-writer is British, so either the phrase was valid in American usage at the time, or perhaps the writer was of recent British extraction.

  • Merriam-Webster: "4. British : flattering or evasive talk. Also : NONSENSE, RUBBISH"
  • Dictionary.com: "British. 4b. Informal. nonsense; humbug; empty talk."
  • Cambridge Dictionary: "UK informal speech containing a lot of words that is used to avoid telling the truth or answering a question, and is often intended to deceive: Leave out the flannel and answer the question!
  • Lexico: British informal Bland fluent talk indulged in to avoid addressing a difficult subject or situation directly.

These definitions have the advantage that they deal negatively with speech, which is the author's context. However, his talk of men "grunting and growling" suggests that some parts of these definitions are less applicable ("flattering," "fluent"), and the main focus is "nonsense." Perhaps the letter documents a stage or offshoot in usage that emphasized the emptiness of the speech without emphasizing deception.

"Run" seems to be used here in a colloquial way that extends another usage. It could be related to "run [one's] mouth," but it seems to me it should be understood as "traffic in," perhaps extending one of the usages that means "to operate something," "to produce" especially by printing, or in particular "to transport or smuggle."

"Up" should be understood as phrasally connected to "here," not to "run": "up here."

12
  • I would say that 'run up flannel' means to figuratively create (sew together) verbal flannel (literally flannel garments). Feb 17 at 21:07
  • @MichaelHarvey I'd be fascinated to know the evolution of the usage. I see that flannel and wool have shared roots; maybe there's a connection between this "evasive talk" and "pulling the wool over [one's] eyes"? Feb 17 at 21:52
  • Someone says on phrases.org.uk that they think the original metaphor was flannel's function as wrapping, padding or muffling material. I suppose I can imagine excess talk being likened to loose wadding or (excessive) padding. People used to say (maybe still do) 'He's flannelling me', and 'Don't give me your old flannel!' Feb 17 at 22:05
  • Those meanings are British and this guy is a dyed-in-the wool American. So, again, I don't know. Not likely.
    – Lambie
    Feb 18 at 0:37
  • 1
    It's clearly not about literal cloth, and did rough miners write like that? Feb 18 at 14:44

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .