In regard to figurative usage, what does “flake” mean? Wiktionary and the Urban Dictionary go with “unreliable person”. Merriam-Webster goes with “oddball”. The free dictionary (Farlex) goes with both “unreliable person” and “oddball”. So, who is right?

My guess: the free dictionary. More specifically, “flake” means “unreliable person” about 80% of the time, and “oddball” about 20% of the time.

  • 50:50 could work.
    – user140086
    Oct 7 '15 at 16:44
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    What answer do you expect to get that the dictionaries you quote don't bring up? Words often have multiple meanings, especially when those meanings overlap. They're both right. Oct 7 '15 at 16:47
  • @AvnerShahar-Kashtan: I agree. I guess what I am partly doing is registering surprise that Merriam-Webster can so easily be trumped. Oct 7 '15 at 17:25
  • Terms of abuse rarely have exact definitions; mostly what they mean when people use them to describe someone is "I don't like that person; therefore he's a <insert abuse term>." Oct 7 '15 at 17:26
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    (The main attribute of a "flake" (when referring to a person) is unpredictability (in a bad way). Both "oddball" and "unreliable" hint at this, but neither captures the meaning very well.)
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 7 '15 at 18:24

Flaky is defined by OED as eccentric; behaving in a strange or unusual way; tending to forget things. It is also seen in reference to unreliable software. Therefore, both of your definitions of flake would be applicable. My preference would be unreliable.

  • 1
    The full OED's first citation for this (orig US slang) sense helpfully defines the word as someone at the NY Times understood it in 1964: The term ‘flake’ needs explanation. It's an insider's word, used throughout baseball, usually as an adjective; someone is considered ‘flaky’. It does not mean anything so crude as ‘crazy’, but it's well beyond ‘screwball’ and far off to the side of ‘eccentric’. But even if that were true then, I agree with you that the primary sense today is normally unreliable. Oct 7 '15 at 17:03
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    @FumbleFingers With the modern use, often the implication is that the person's unreliability is specifically a symptom of a mild-to-moderate personality disorder. By contrast, people don't ordinarily expect children, drug addicts, or dementia patients to be reliable, but they probably wouldn't call them flakes. Oct 7 '15 at 18:27

Barbara Kipfer & Robert Chapman, Dictionary of American Slang, fourth edition (2007), offers three relevant definitions of flake as a noun:

flake ... n 1 An eccentric person, esp a colorful individualist; BIRD : what is known in the trade as a flake, a kook, or a clubhouse lawyer [quotation attributed to Christopher Lehmann-Haupt] / Users and flakes clung to her [quotation attributed to New York Magazine] (1950s+ Baseball) 2 The quality of flamboyant individualism : The Yankees have acquired an amount of "flake" [quotation attributed to Leonard Koppett, New York Times, April 26, 1964] (1960s+ Baseball) 3 A stupid, erratic person; RETARD (1960s+ Teenagers)

and three relevant definitions of flaky/flakey:

flaky or flakey adj 1 Colorfully eccentric; buoyantly individualistic (1960s+ Baseball) 2 Insane; SCREWY, WACKY : a flaky old professor, a snake expert [quotation attributed to New York Magazine] (1960s+) 3 Disoriented; barely conscious; dizzy : He played the last 23 minutes of the game in a condition that was described as "flaky" and "fuzzy" [quotation attributed to New York Times] (1960s+)

The Leonard Koppett quotation used to illustrate definition 2 of flake above strays somewhat from the wording it had in Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang, second supplemented edition (1975). Here is the wording given in the earlier edition of the dictionary:

"In the last three years, the Yankees [New York baseball team] have acquired ... [an] amount of "flake" in the person of such young players as Joe Pepitone, Jim Bouton, Phil Linz...."

The earliest use of the noun flake to refer to an offbeat and unpredictable person that I have seen reported is cited in this entry from The Dickson Baseball Encyclopedia, third edition (2011):

flake An odd or eccentric player; a kidder or comic; a kook. Famous baseball flakes include Jackie Brandt (the "original" flake), Phil Linz, Denny McClain, Bill "Spaceman" Lee, Mark Fidrych, Al "The Md Hungaria" Hrabosky, Ross Grimsley, and Jay Johnstone. ... USAGE NOTE. The term carries a certain element of endearment and tends to be applied to likable, but not always reliable, characters. ETYMOLOGY. By the late 1950s, the term "flakey" began to replace the beatnik term "kook" for an oddball character. According to Joseph McBride (High & Inside, 1980), a San Francisco Giants teammate in 1957 gave offbeat outfielder Jackie Brandt the nickname “Flakey” because “things seem to flake off his mind and disappear.” The adjective became a noun ("flake") by the early 1960s. Maury Allen (Bo: Pitching and Wooing, 1973) claimed that Brandt's St. Louis Cardinals teammate Wally Moon created the term in 1956: "Moon suggested that Brandt was so wild his brains were falling out of his head, flaking off his body, hence, a flake."

So according to Dickson, flake originally arose in connection with the outfielder Jackie Brandt in 1956 or 1957, although Brandt's nickname was "Flakey" not "Flake." Dickson also notes that, outside baseball, the word flaky eventually acquired a less affectionate sense, "as when President Ronald Reagan said that Col. Mu'ammar al-Gadhafi was 'flaky,' thereby implying that the Libyan strongman was strange and possibly not sane."

Jim Brosnan, The Long Season (1960), a diary of his 1959 season with the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds, offers what may be the first recoded definition of flakey, as a glossary entry:

Flakey A character, or characteristic, of eccentric or unusual behavior, verbal or physical, on or off the ball field. Any ballplayer who is considered hard to figure out is called "flakey."

But in Brosnan's book, the term comes up as a nickname not for Jackie Brandt (who was then with the San Francisco Giants) but Joe Cunningham (a Cardinals first baseman/outfielder), from an entry dated August 23, 1959:

"He [Cunningham] and [Eddie] Kasko make a real funny pair," said [Reds pitching coach Cot] Deal. "They could beat [Dean] Martin and [Jerry] Lewis when they get started."

"How come Cunningham is called Flakey, Cot? When did that start?"

"People that don't know him call him that. He's got an oddball sense of humor, and at the same time he's so damn serious about baseball that you'd think he's two different people. 'Flakey' means people don't understand you. ..."

I agree with Hot Licks's conclusion (in a comment above) that the core characteristic of a flake isn't unreliability but unpredictability, which is why it can be used to refer to someone who does endearingly odd things or to someone who does irrationally harmful things.

  • Good answer. I've had students ask me this one before, and I usually say that it means weird or odd. However, I've used it as a verb before, "She flaked out on us." to mean that yet again, she didn't show up. Oct 8 '15 at 1:01

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