9 Old-Fashioned Words for the Fickle


Whether we’re waffling between Facebook and Twitter, beer and wine, or pure goodness and diabolical evil, few of us are steadfast enough to avoid some flip-flopping—and inconstancy must be an ancient quality, because there are many old-fashioned words for the flighty. Make sure to use them the next time you dither.


Shittle, which goes back to the 1400s, means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Inconstant, variable, wavering; fickle, flighty; hasty, rash.” In 1676, Aylett Sammes’ Britannia Antiqua Illustrata, Or the Antiquities of Ancient Britain demonstrated the changeability inherent in the term, describing a leader who “had once an intention to Invade Britain, but by his shittle Head, sudden repentance, and mighty designs against Germany, all came to nothing.” If you’re about as reliable as a ditzy dunderhead, you can also be called shittle-brained, shittle-headed, or the pleasingly rhyming shittle-witted.


This rare term is a bit euphemistic. It sounds like positive term for a decisive, stalwart hero, but sometimes refers to someone so overwhelmed by choices they can’t make a single one. Way back in 1591, the term was used by Edmund Spenser in his collection Complaints: “None of these ... Mote please his fancie ... His choicefull sense with euerie change doth flit.” In other words, that fella can’t make up his damn mind.


Reduplicative words are an untrustworthy bunch, with many meaning some form of malarkey, such as fiddle-faddle, jibber-jabber, and mumbo jumbo. So it’s fitting that bingle-bangle is a word for flippy-floppy behavior. This term, which showed up rarely in the 1800s, comes from a meaning of bangle that refers to the apparently aimless fluttering of a bird. Bingle-bangle-ness likewise involves a fluttering and frittering about, lost in the fog of fickledom.


Another reduplicative term with a flimsy meaning is shilly-shally, which has had several forms and uses, all relating to indecisiveness, since about 1700. This term can be an adjective, describing shilly-shally stuff and nonsense, and also a noun meaning fickleness. An 1847 example by Thomas De Quincey uses the word to describe its opposite: “She lost not one of her forty-five minutes in picking and choosing. No shilly-shally in Kate.”


This word can refer to many moony attributes, but especially the sense that the moon is influencing you—maybe not to lycanthropy, but perhaps to wishy-washiness. Moonish has been around since the 1400s, and it appeared in Shakespeare’s As You Like It in 1616: “At which time would I, being but a moonish youth, greeue, be effeminate, changeable ...”


Today, if you’re described as versatile, you’d likely take it as a compliment, meaning you can do this, that, and a lot of other things. But the history of versatility is a tad disreputable. The OED has several examples that demonstrate how ill-regarded versatility was, including quotations from 1659 (“To mold, the versatle hypocrisy of his depraved mind”) and 1882 (“He is too versatile, too soft-hearted and impressionable.)” This meaning deserves a comeback: versatile should live up to its own meaning.


This obscure word is related to frittering, which the fickle do at an Olympic level. In 1579, the term popped up in a translation of a Jean Calvin sermon: “We are so frittle, that though the way be plaine and beaten before vs, yet can we hardly lift vp one foote.”


A weathercock is a rooster-ish weathervane whose name took a metaphorical turn as a word for people who also shift easily with the breeze. This term appears in Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost: “What plume of fethers is he that indited this letter? What vaine? What Wethercock?” The adjectival form is the amusing weathercocky. Another variation is a synonym for fickleness that showed up in an 1887 issue of London’s Saturday Review: “To do these Radicals justice, there is a great deal of consistency in their weathercockism.”


The first uses of this word, found in the 1600s, had a simple sense: lasting a week. In the 1700s, this word evolved to refer to folks who change their minds once a week. This sentence, from Edmund Burke in 1797, describes a timeless and unpleasant experience: “Listening to variable, hebdomadal politicians, who run away from their opinions without giving us a month's warning.”

8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words

Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.


Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.


Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”


The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.


Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.


Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.


Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

Big Questions
What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?

One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.


While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at


More from mental floss studios