English language Usage Notes

Can a Ship ‘Flounder’?

The difference between ‘flounder’ and ‘founder’

From the Merriam-Webster online dictionary

My cmnt: For the rare times I actually encounter ‘flounder’ or ‘founder’ in print I found this article (below) from the online Meriam-Webster dictionary interesting.

My cmnt: I also include an interesting (to me at least) discussion of the words ‘fort‘ and ‘forte.

from the Apple computer dictionary
from the Apple computer dictionary
from the online Meriam-Webster dictionary

My cmnt: Here is a trio of frequently confused words – eminent, imminent, immanent. This is because they are not only similar in spelling but also pronunciation. Confession: I still have a hard time using and spelling them correctly. So we have imminent – about to happen; eminent – prominent, famous, outstanding; and immanent – existing or operating within, inherent.

My cmnt: Those of us who love the writings of C.S. Lewis and especially “The Chronicles of Narnia” (which would include J. K. Rowling – who pronounces her last name roe-ling) might have noticed that Lewis frequently uses the words ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ with their traditional meanings (i.e., gay meant lighthearted or carefree and queer meant odd or eerie or that which inspires feelings of awe or dread or supernatural encounter). Unfortunately both of these words have been commandeered to now stand for being homosexual.

From the Apple computer dictionary
from the Apple computer dictionary

My cmnt: Now another terribly hard word to correctly use is ‘irony’. Co-opting ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ to mean homosexual is annoying but it might also be ironic as homosexuals are often neither carefree nor awe inspiring. Of course the same could be said of heterosexuals but then we do not usually refer to ourselves as either gay or queer.

Isn’t it Ironic? Probably Not – The Misuse of the Word Irony

March 12, 2018 by jennings780@gmail.com

From the IFOD website.

Funny. But not quite irony.

Irony is a tough, slippery concept. I have made troubled peace with the word irony by never using it for fear of misusing it. That’s a tough way to live – without ever using the word irony, so I’ve undertaken research and have a better grasp of what irony means. Here is a summary of my research and then the best explanation I found, which comes from George Carlin.

First thing to know: three types of irony are generally recognized – dramatic, verbal and situational.  It is the third type that gets misused the most.

Dramatic Irony: This occurs in art such as plays, books and movies. It occurs when the audience is aware of something of which the characters in the story are not aware. For example, in Romeo and Juliet the character  appears to be dead to the characters, but the audience is aware she has merely taken a sleeping potion.

Verbal Irony: Occurs when what is said is the opposite of the literal meaning of the words used. Such as: “that is clear as mud,” or “as fun as a root canal,” or “I literally died,” or “I’d rather pull out my own teeth.” Verbal irony includes sarcasm among its flavors. Sarcasm is intended to be biting or hurtful where the other types of verbal irony are not.

Situational Irony: This is the tough one.  According to the New Oxford English Dictionary, “Irony is a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.” From the New York Times Editorial Guide: “Use of irony and ironically, to mean an incongruous turn of events, is trite. Not every coincidence, curiosity, oddity and paradox is an irony, even loosely. And where irony does exist, sophisticated writing counts on the reader to recognize it.” Situational irony is most often confused with coincidences, bad luck, being hypocritical or mere incongruity. Here are a few things that are not ironic and then a few things that are:

If while  out-of-town on vacation I am seated at a restaurant at a table surprisingly adjacent to where my next door neighbor has just been seated, that is a coincidence and a surprise, not ironic.

Washing your car and having it start to rain a bit later is just bad luck, not ironic. Similarly, rain on your wedding day is bad luck. Winning the lottery and dying the next day is very good luck followed by very bad luck. Not irony.

How about writing a song called “isn’t it ironic” with many examples of irony none of which are actually ironic? Is that ironic? Probably.* It seems ironic, but most don’t want to credit the writer/singer Alanis Morissette with having actually created irony.

If my job is working at an unemployment benefits office and I get laid off because unemployment is so low, that is ironic.

Here’s another good example of irony from the Huffington Post: “We moved our wedding to an indoor venue because the forecast predicted rain, but the day turned out to be sunny. Ironically, the sprinkler system at the venue malfunctioned and doused the ceremony with water, so we all got wet after all. If only we’d just stuck with the outdoor wedding plan!”

From the great George Carlin – his explanation of Irony:  

Irony deals with opposites; it has nothing to do with coincidence.
If two baseball players from the same hometown, on different teams, receive the same uniform number, it is not ironic. It is a coincidence. If Barry Bonds attains lifetime statistics identical to his father’s, it will not be ironic. It will be a coincidence.

Irony is a state of affairs that is the reverse of what was to be expected; a result opposite to and in mockery of the appropriate result. For instance: a diabetic, on his way to buy insulin, is killed by a runaway truck. He is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering sugar, he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck was delivering insulin, ah! Then he is the victim of an irony.

If a Kurd, after surviving bloody battle with Saddam Hussein’s army and a long, difficult escape through the mountains, is crushed and killed by a parachute drop of humanitarian aid, that, my friend, is irony writ large.

Darryl Stingley, the pro football player, was paralyzed after a brutal hit by Jack Tatum. Now Darryl Stingley’s son plays football, and if the son should become paralyzed while playing, it will not be ironic. It will be coincidental. If Darryl Stingley’s son paralyzes someone else, that will be closer to ironic. If he paralyzes Jack Tatum’s son, that will be precisely ironic.

*Alanis Morissette’s revised attempt to write a song about irony with actual irony in it: Maybe It’s Finally Ironic

Lyrics to “Isn’t it Ironic”: Ironic Lyrics

Now, finally (ironic, isn’t it?) on to the main article – founder or flounder?

The English language does not care if you are happy or sad. It is oblivious to your shrill entreaties for an orderly and sensible vocabulary. As proof of this supreme indifference we need look no further than the words founder and flounder, for no language that cares about its speakers would ever allow this kind of semantic cruelty to exist.


‘Founder’ means “to sink” or “to collapse” or “to fail.” ‘Flounder’ means “to struggle to move” or “to proceed clumsily.”

“What is so hard about founder and flounder?” some of you are asking, perhaps with a supercilious cast to your voice (we can hear you, by the way); “ships founder and people flounder … easy peasy lemon squeezy.” The English language scoffs at your feeble attempts to interject a rhyming Briticism into a discussion on usage.

Putting aside the fact that both of these words function as nouns (founder as “one who establishes” and flounder as “flatfish”), let’s look at how the verb senses have come to be often confused.

Founder is the older of these two, dating back to the 14th century, and has a useful etymology: it can be traced to the Vulgar Latin fundus, meaning “bottom.” The reason that this is useful is that one of the main contemporary senses of founder is “to send (a ship) to the bottom.”

No one is entirely certain where flounder comes from, although there is speculation that the word, which began to be used at the end of the 16th century, came about as an alteration of founder. The earliest senses of these words were somewhat related; founder was first used with the meaning of “to become disabled,” and flounder was first used to mean “stumble.”

The problem is that these words look and sound almost identical, and each one has meanings that would work quite well in an essay titled “Things That Did Not Go the Way That I Had Hoped.” The difference that is observed by most usage guides is that founder carries a stronger sense of completed failure (its synonyms are sinkcollapse, and fail) whereas flounder has more of a meaning of “struggle” or “act clumsily.” One way to look at it is that you can flounder for a while and then eventually founder, but you cannot founder for a while and then flounder.

But can a ship flounder? There are certainly many instances in which writers have used this word to describe the actions of a seaborne vessel where they would have been better off using founder:

When the Titanic struck the ice and floundered and sank, the band played “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
Bulletin of the National Federation of Remedial Loan Associations, 1918

However, there are also numerous cases where writers have used flounder to describe a ship that is in fact struggling, or moving ineffectually, and in cases such as this it would not make sense to use founder:

The storm had broken, and the fragmentary clouds were flying like lightning over the sky, while the sea, as far as the eye could reach, was one vast expanse of heaving, tumbling mountains—their basis a bright pea-green, and their ridges white as snow. Over and around these our good ship floundered like a mere toy.
Naval Journal, 1848

He forgets that this big ship floundered around for a good many days without sighting anything but water.
—George Barr McCutcheon, West Wind Drift, 1920

It should be noted that most of these examples come from a hundred or more years ago, a time when people had not yet begun to worry about whether they were misusing these two words. So yes, a ship may indeed flounder, but this may well be one of those cases where you would do well to simply find another word— (galumphcareenbumble)—rather than have to explain why you chose a word that many people will reflexively assume was chosen in error.

In case this still does not make sense to you, we will offer up yet another example of how these two words might be used in different contexts: If you are gamely trying to work out which one of these two words you will use in your “Things That Did Not Go the Way That I Had Hoped” essay, but still cannot figure it out, then you are floundering; if you have given up in disgust and have decided to consult a thesaurus for some alternatives, then you may be said to have foundered.

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