Why Flabby Is a Fine Adjective for 2020 and Beyond

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I first encountered the word flabby used creatively in the Adam Smith, Esq. blog. I read Bruce MacEwen’s law firm commentary mainly for the quality and sparkle of the writing and, at the time, I thought it was a thoughtful use of a word typically confined to, at least in my experience, less-than-taut midsections. Naturally, all efforts to find the post have been unsuccessful, but I’m certain of the origin.

While introducing what I had observed as the all-too-common default use of the word relevant in a piece I wrote for an industry magazine, I warned that “a [flabby] directive” may “cloud a well-articulated vision.” In other words, instead of expressing the hackneyed need to stay relevant, figure out what you really need or want, and communicate that. To be flabby is to be unoriginal at best, unclear at worst.

But an editor plucked it out like a defective would-be product from an assembly line, saying it “just doesn’t work here.” She substituted loose, and I dialed down my zeal.

How do you define a word that is so common, yet so relatively pigeonholed? Here’s what you’ll find in Merriam-Webster:

1 : lacking resilience or firmness : FLACCID

2 : weak and ineffective : FEEBLE

Could the choice of this word be a solid indicator of writing panache? Should sophisticated readers and writers alike search out this offbeat word to find their next read or source of inspiration? Also, when used in an unusual or unanticipated way, can we ever know what the writer intended?

Google Books’ Ngram Viewer tells me the use of flabby was on the rise from roughly 1840 to the end of the 19th century. Then, its use gradually declined over the next one hundred years until the year 2000, at which time it began to experience a gentle resurgence, one that presumably continues to this very day.

Next, I turned to JSTOR, the self-described “digital library for the intellectually curious.” I found only one article published in the last twenty years with the word flabby in the title; it’s Dennis Kennedy’s “TECHNOLOGY: FIGHTING FLABBY FILES: These techniques make moving large documents a breeze.” Does flabby necessarily mean fat? I decided to avoid this particular rabbit hole.

Trade publications in the 21st century use the word to describe the following, some so expected that they’re practically puns: customers, supermarket chains, holiday sales, ad agencies, finance departments, excuses, workforce wellness programs, beef carcasses, and, of course, aging human arms. Evidence and freedom, too.

Some time later, I found Erik Larson’s Wall Street Journal headline: “Working at Home: Is It Freedom or a Life of Flabby Loneliness?”

That headline. I assumed it had been published sometime during this most recent pandemic, but I was surprised to learn that it had been published the better part of forty years ago. I point this out not to make Mr. Larson feel old, but to support my hunch that certain inconvenient truths about WFH will always pique despite decades of technological advances.

Do they ever.

Larson’s article wouldn’t be at all anachronistic today. It describes maladies all too familiar: weight gain, lack of social interaction, fear of diminished promotability, longer hours worked, and, of course, loneliness brought on by isolation.

But how can loneliness be flabby? Was Larson simply referring to the extra pounds brought on by one’s proximity to the “ice box”?

Or, is it a product of ill-defined borders (as of work hours) or boundaries (as of the misperception that by being at home you’re not really working and can therefore assume the role of “neighborhood drop-off person” for UPS packages)? What about the blurred rungs of the corporate ladder or the fatigue that blankets like snow or sand? (“Already tired by Monday night”? Nearly four decades later, we are, too!)

You’d think this hydra would be more washboard than paunch; piquant rather than bland; razor sharp and not soft. But it is flabby, not like fat — like quicksand. Threatening, all consuming, inescapable, unending. Or so it seems.

Flabby may not occupy the highly competitive pages of Eugene Ehrlich’s The Highly Selective Dictionary of Golden Adjectives for the Extraordinarily Literate, where you’ll find the true honor roll of noun modifiers, including flatulent, flannelmouthed, and flagitious, but I will continue to use it sparingly and surreptitiously, like profanity — or perhaps like butter.

Kristen is a librarian-author whose work has appeared in VESSEL, RNOPH and Law Library Journal, among other publications. Visit kristenhallows.com.

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