Flutists and flautists and flute players. Oh my!

What is the difference between flutist, flautist, and flute player?

A “musician who plays the flute” can be referred to as a flute playerflautistflutistfluter, or flutenist. What’s correct, what’s preferred, what should be used? Each term has it’s own etymological origins, geographical distinctions, as well as a garnered personal preference for use.

Let’s start by looking into the etymology:

  • flute (v.) [floot] late 14c., “to play upon the flute,” from flute (n.). Related: Fluted; fluting. flute (n.) [floot] early 14c., from Old French flaut, flaute (musical) “flute” (12c.), from Old Provençal flaut, which is of uncertain origin; perhaps imitative or from Latin flare “to blow”; perhaps influenced by Provençal laut “lute.” The other Germanic words (such as German flöte) are likewise borrowings from French.
  • flutist (n.) [floo-tist] c. 1600, probably from French flûtiste; replaced Middle English flouter (early 13c., from Old French flauteor) and is preferred in U.S. The British preference is flautist, a Continental reborrowing that returns the original diphthong (a gliding vowel, refers to two adjacent vowel sounds occurring within the same syllable).
  • flautist (n.) [flaw-tist, flou-] 1860, from Italian flautista, from flauto “flute” (from Late Latin flauta; see flute (n.)) + Greek-derived suffix -ista.
  •  fluter (n.) [floo-ter] 1350-1400; Middle English flouter, floutour; Old French fleuteur, flauteor, equivalent to flaut(er) to play the flute + -eur, -eor (Latin -ōr- -or2 or -ātōr- -ator), a term coined by Saumuel Pepys in his diary entry for June 21, 1666 notes, “I saw … a picture of a fluter playing on his flute.”
  •  flutenist (n.) [floten ist] equiv to flutist; A flute player; a flutist. [Rare.]

As for geographical use, it’s noted in the etymology, British English and American English have gone their separate ways. In Britain, there is a preference to use flautist. In the U.S., the preference is to use flutist. Even as such, it could be found curious that the earliest use of flautist (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) is in 1860 from the work The Marble Faun by American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. The novel is set in Italy, where the Italian word for flute is flauto. The choice flautist over flutist may have been employed by Hawthorne’s desire to add local color.

As for personal preference, music makers have chimed in, making valid observations and arguments toward their preferred terminology.

Yvonne Caruthers, professional cellist, shared her thoughts about flute player vs flutist, commenting that adding ‘player’ after an instrument connotes a casualness. She says “‘I’m a cellist’ is more professional, ‘I’m a cello player’ sounds more casual.”

John Bell comments that he has found that many use “flautist only do so to be different and not conform.” As such, he prefers to be called a flutist.

Nancy Toff cites that the term flautist is associated with the negative connotations, sounding like flout which means to jeer or mock, therefore “playing a flute to ridicule.” She prefers to be called a flute player, or fluter.

Fenwick Smith has detailed quite a collected diatribe into the subject. He starts by saying, “Countless times people have asked me whether I’m a flutist or a flautist. Since Americans usually pronounce flautist as if it were floutist, I sometimes protest that that I might flaunt my flute, but I would never flout it. Or if I’m in a contrarian mood I might suggest that, if a player of the lute is a lutanist, then I am, in fact, a flutanist. Puns aside, the short answer is that I’m not a flautist, but a flutist.” Smith cites his preference for flutist over flautist for its authentic etymology, its long-standing in the English language, and for its directness. He also shares Toff’s sentiments that flautist is a “less desirable option when Americans, wanting not to sound highfalutin, pronounce it floutist instead of flawtist: to flout means to show contempt for, to scoff at, to jeer, to be scornful—making floutist a unpleasant epithet indeed.”

Perhaps one of the most noted quote associated with this etymological deviation is by Sir James Galway. When prompted on the subject, he has said, “I am a flute player not a flautist. I don’t have a flaut and I’ve never flauted.”

How you may choose to identify, we can circle back to being a “musician who plays the flute.”

Further Reading

  1. “Online Etymology Dictionary.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Ed. Harper Douglas. Etymonline. Web. 13 May 2015. <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=flute>.
  2. Bell, John. “Flutist or Flautist??” Flute4All. Web. 12 May 2015. <http://www.flute4all.com/articles/flutistflautist.html>.
  3. Toff, Nancy. The Flute Book: A Complete Guide for Students and Performers. Charles’s Scribners Sons, 1985. Print. Web. 13 May 2015. <https://books.google.com/books?id=pCSanDD4CtsC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
  4. Caruthers, Yvonne. “Why Would Someone Who Plays the Flute Be Called a Flautist?” Quora. Quora, 10 Apr. 2014. Web. 13 May 2015. <http://www.quora.com/Why-would-someone-who-plays-the-flute-be-called-a-flautist>.
  5. “fluter.” Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. Dictionary.com. Web. 13 May 2015. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fluter>.
  6. “flutenist.” The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia. Web. 13 May 2015. <https://books.google.com/books?id=gTElurCu-WYC&pg=PA2291>.
  7. Smith, Fenwick. “Is it flutist or flautist?” Fenwick Smith. Retrieved from the The Internet Archive. Web. 13 May 2015. <https://web.archive.org/web/20140116191634/http://www.fenwicksmith.com/miscellany_flautist.html>.
  8. Wikipedia contributors. “Flute.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 May 2015. Web. 13 May 2015. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flute>.