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The Online Etymology Dictionary reads:

flounder (v.) 1590s, perhaps an alteration of founder (q.v.), influenced by Dutch flodderen "to flop about," or native verbs in fl- expressing clumsy motion.

Thus, the origin of flounder is not certain. However, after reading that dictionary entry, I wonder if flounder can be simply an embellishment of founder, where the sound unit fl might be used in order to carry a subliminal meaning of heavy movement, according to J. R. Firth's theory.

Can this origin be realistically considered?

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3 Answers

Well, since the OED says it's of obscure etymology, and may certainly have some sound symbolism, let's take a look at the FL- Assonance.

There are three distinct (but overlapping) semantic characteristics:

  1. 46 words -- 2-Dimensional Non-Extended
  2. 21 words -- Inadequate
  3. 31 words -- (Repeated) Small Motions

And our friend flounder is spang in the middle of the Venn diagram, since it is

  • a noun representing a fish principally known for being flat,
    and which flops around, as all fish do in air

as well as

  • a verb meaning 'to perform repeated small inadequate motions'
    leading to an inadequate performance.
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Well, yes, but it's a bit anthropocentric from the flounder's point of view. In his own natural environment (the sea) I'm sure he thinks he swims around quite gracefully and purposefully. Obviously things are a bit different when he's a fish out of water At least lambs get to gambol around, happy as Larry, before being led to the slaughter. And even pigs get to be happy when they're in shit. But for the poor flounders there don't seem to be any "idiomatic upsides"! :) –  FumbleFingers May 27 '13 at 1:50
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That's a great answer! –  Lucas May 27 '13 at 2:13
    
How does one access your list of phonosemantic venn diagrams? –  Lucas May 27 '13 at 2:19
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Here's a bibliography. Items 11 & 13 contain or link to all my data, most of which is not Venndiagrammable. If you like phonosemantic Venn diagrams, however, this one is the killer. –  John Lawler May 27 '13 at 2:55
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Flounder is already a troublesome word, for semantic reasons. Fillmore describes the problem with flounders in his second Deixis Lecture. –  John Lawler May 27 '13 at 3:16
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Even OED says flounder is of obscure etymology, so I don't think we're going to resolve anything here.

But here's the full text of what they say...

Perhaps an onomatopoeic blending of the sound and sense of various earlier words; compare flounder v. (Old French fondrer), blunder n., and the many verbs with initial fl- expressing impetuous and clumsy movements. Wedgwood and Skeat compare Dutch flodderen, to flounder in mire, to flop about: see the dialectal flodder v., which may have affected the development of the present word.

The above-mentioned "initial fl-" includes verbs such as flop, flail, flip, float, flex, flood, flit, flight, flub, etc. It's easy to see how people might often choose flounder over the relatively uncommon founder in many contexts - especially if they weren't particularly familiar with either word in the first place.

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Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) gives different sources for the verb flounder and the noun (fish) flounder. For the verb:

[prob. alter. of founder] (15c)

For the fish:

[ME, of Scand origin; akin to Norw flundra founder]

Somewhat similarly, the New Oxford American Dictionary (2001) offers this origin for the verb:

late 16th cent.: perhaps a blend of FOUNDER [in the sense of "fill with water and sink"] and BLUNDER, or perhaps symbolic, fl- frequently beginning words connected with swift or sudden movement.

and this origin for the fish:

Middle English: from Old French flondre, probably of Scandinavian origin and related to Danish flynder.

Whether the verb flounder is from the 15th century (as Merriam-Webster's says) or from the late 16th century (as Oxford says), it is certainly a younger word in English than the fish flounder. That being the case, I wonder whether flounder the fish may have influenced the emergence of flounder the verb.

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