Lexical Investigations: Flair

The word flair has been around in English for a long time—since the mid-14th century—however, the senses that most English speakers are familiar with did not enter English until much later. While the noun form of flair entered English from the Old French word of the same spelling, this term ultimately came from the Late Latin verb fragrare, which meant “to smell sweet.”

It might surprise the non-hunting population of English speakers to learn that flair and fragrance come from the same Latin root; the original sense of flair, “scent” or “sense of smell,” is a hunting term and rarely used out of the context of dogs’ noses. It was not until the late 19th century that the “sense of smell” part of flair’s meaning was generalized to other senses. At this time people started using flair to describe the quality of having discerning intuition or “feelings” about something. By the 1920s, a new meaning of flair emerged, which departed from the five senses altogether. Now it simply meant that people had a talent or knack for something. Both these meanings are often followed by the word “for.” The most recent sense of flair gained popularity in the mid-20th century. For the first time, it was used to describe a person or thing with a sense of style.

Popular References
—Pieces of flair: in the hit 1999 film Office Space, Jennifer Aniston’s character is required to wear “pieces of flair”—basically tacky buttons—for her waitress job
—The Flairs: a 1950s all-male doo-wop group, original called The Debonaires

Relevant Quotations:
Frantz grew up a sheltered, highly precocious child, with an unusually solid background in the arts, a taste for stimulating society, and a highly developed flair for writing.
—Meredith L. Clausen, Frantz Jordain and the Samaritatine (1987)
What you lack in natural musical talent, dear, you make up for in flair and style.
—Fannie Flagg, I Still Dream About You (2010)
G. J. had a flair for finding lost objects, and always did it when not consciously looking for them.
—George Nugent Merle Tyrrell, Science and Psychical Phenomena (1938)
[W]e find, in hunting-dogs particularly, a vast preponderance of olfactory lobes over[…]their brain. What would such a dog be without his flair?
—Paul Carus, The Open Court, Volume 10 (1896)