Next Sunday, February 14, is Valentine’s Day, a date that honors the third-century Christian martyr who is the patron saint of epilepsy. In the Middle Ages, St. Valentine also became associated with courtly love; by the 18th century, February 14 had turned into the holiday amorous couples still celebrate with greeting cards, roses, candy, and expensive restaurant meals.
It’s a high-pressure occasion, which may explain why, in late January, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the reopening of limited indoor dining in New York City restaurants. “This is the city’s second flirtation with a return to dining in” since the onset of the pandemic, wrote Helen Rosner in the New Yorker on February 5, employing a noun with meaningful V-Day overtones and shadings of deception and caprice.
“Mrs. Flirt,” a card from a vintage Old Maid deck, via Etsy
The OED says the word’s origins are onomatopoetic –“compare flick, flip, flerk, spurt, squirt”—while the Online Etymology Dictionary points out that English words that begin with fl- often connote “a loose, flapping motion” and connect “the notions of flightiness and licentiousness”: consider fly, flicker, flash, flap, fledgling, flutter,fling, fluster, flit, flurry, flock, fling, flounce, flinch, flail, floozy, and Scots flisk, “to fly about nimbly.” Another theory holds that the word was influenced by an Old French verb, fleureter (“to talk sweet nonsense” or “to touch a thing in passing”—a flower, say). If so, English has repaid the debt: the French have borrowed flirter (“to flirt”) since the 19th century.
Flirt was popular in literary and cinematic titles in the early 20th century. On IMDb I counted 25 silent films, made between 1901 and 1928, with flirt in their titles, including Don’t Flirt, Flirty Fan, How to Flirt, The Magnificent Flirt, and Married Flirts. Most of the flirts in question are young women, but in this 1917 short film the comic genius Harold Lloyd plays the title character.
A two-page ad for The Flirt (1922), adapted from Booth Tarkington’s 1913 novel of the same name.
Flirty Gertie, recorded in 1958 by the Jiv-A-Tones
Flirt has also enjoyed a robust life as a commercial name. Between 1947 and 1955, the enterprising Robert Harrison—best known for Confidential magazine—published a girlie mag called Flirt that, according to Wikipedia, “mainly featured fetishist photo-stories.” (Harrison’s other titles included Wink, Whisper, Eyeful, and Titter. That last publication was touted as “America’s merriest magazine.”)
Flirt magazine, August 1948. There’s an unrelated UK-based lad mag called Flirt that has been published online since 2007.
Unsurprisingly, flirt appears in the names of a raft of online dating/hookup services: ClickAndFlirt, EasyFlirt, QuickFlirt, iFlirt, UpToFlirt, FlirtWithMe, EliteFlirt. Among the 86 FLIRT trademarks in the USPTO is Flirt vodka, produced in Bulgaria and notorious for its “predictably sizzling and provocative” ads, according to The Spirits Business.
Flirt vodka “represents the stubborn, eager, free spirit of the young generation. Its exquisite nature drives trough [sic] limits and cultural dogmas.” Possibly better in the original Bulgarian.
Flirt also lends itself to punny business. “Flirty Dancing” was an American TV series that lasted a single season on the Fox network, in 2019. (Synopsis: “Strangers are taught a dance, then dance together on a blind date to see if they have chemistry.”) IMDb shows two unrelated TV episodes titled “The Flirt Locker,” from 2010 and 2011. (The Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker was released in 2008.)
By far the most popular object of flirtation in recent decades is disaster. The 1996 Ben Stiller comedy Flirting with Disaster, which elevated an existing idiom to title status, sparked a bunch of copycats: IMDb shows 17 television episodes with the identical title.
And the last 12 months have seen a spike in “flirting with disaster” news stories. Donald Trump was “flirting with disaster” by holding rallies during the pandemic, a former White House medical advisor told CNN last July. “Why does California’s power grid keep flirting with disaster?” asked a Los Angeles Times headline last September, in the middle of wildfire season. “We’re flirting with pandemic disaster,” warned a January 28, 2021, story in the New Yorker. Premature restaurant reopenings appear to be another disastrous flirtation. This Valentine’s Day, the most romantic way to flirt may be the old-fashioned way: at a discreet distance.