Good To Know: founder vs. flounder

For quite some time, I’d assumed that I simply didn’t understand these two words. I’ve seen the verb “to founder” in print, quite often where I expected “to flounder.” As such, I decided that flounder probably wasn’t proper English, but rather a perversion of the real word, “to founder.”

I even went so far as to inform people of my error in this matter. None of them thought (or knew) to correct me, so I proceeded to think that I had solved the mystery.

It wasn’t until recently that I finally got around to investigating the difference, and was surprised by what I found.

First, both founder and flounder are real English verbs. And indeed they are used in roughly the same context, though they do mean different things.

This usage guide, from the American Heritage Book of English Usage, is perhaps the best and most simple explanation I can find:

People often confuse the verbs founder and flounder. Founder comes from a Latin word meaning “bottom” (as in foundation) and originally referred to knocking enemies down; people now use it also to mean “to fail utterly, collapse”: The business started well but foundered. Flounder means “to move clumsily, thrash about” and hence “to proceed in confusion.” Thus if John is foundering in Chemistry 1, he had better drop the course; if he is floundering, he may yet pull through.

Thus, I floundered with this distinction. But, by looking it up, I saved myself from foundering. And that’s good to know.

14 responses to “Good To Know: founder vs. flounder”

  1. i hadn’t thought about this one in a while, but then i remembered my old comic book days and the obscure phrases. founder was one of those words they used when they ran out of words to say something was destroyed.

  2. I will never accept that “floundering” is anything more than a perverse use of the word “foundering”. Pity the poor Flounder, maligned as some sort of sinking, thrashing creature unable to swim or float, doomed to a life of struggle. I have caught many flounder, and almost never by design. The awkward looking, but delicious tasting flounder is not easily caught, and to bring one home for dinner is indeed a pleasure, nearly equaling the satisfaction of catching one. These saltwater dwellers do anything but “founder” when hooked. There is absolutely no meaningful connection that can ever be made between the act of faltering, sputtering or failing and the tenacious and graceful movement of the flounder, either swimming free, or at the end of a fishing line.

  3. There are possibly only 15 million flounder alive in the world. that is less than the population of New York City. Please don’t eat flounder or surely their species will founder…

  4. “There is absolutely no meaningful connection that can ever be made between the act of faltering, sputtering or failing and the tenacious and graceful movement of the flounder..”

    Yep, that’s because that’s not what fLounder means. That’s what founder means.

    Flailing yes, failing no.

  5. Founder – To sink or to drop below the surface of the water.

    You could say every flounder has foundered but has every founder floundered?

  6. Floundering is a time-honored method of catching the eponymous flat fish, that first cousin of the fluke, either by gigging or using a bottom crawling lure.
    Excuse me, I meant to say “that delicious flat fish …”
    In my childhood, when I enjoyed floundering near Cape Hatteras, “to flounder” no more meant “to flap about” than “bassing” means to suck at playing woodwinds.
    Except that, now, just about everyone seems to think it means just that, and common usage is beating out correct English.

  7. “Except that, now, just about everyone seems to think it means just that, and common usage is beating out correct English.”

    Ah, unfortunately that is becoming the norm, and not just with foundering/floundering; i.e., as people flounder with proper english, it is in danger of foundering. okay – whatever.

    How about professional journalists and sports announcers saying “yeah, he did real good when…” and people who commonly use “less” when it should be “fewer” and don’t get me started on….well, never mind. I digress.

    I arrived here thanks to Joe Morgan, the only thing that stands in the way of my enjoying the Yankees on Sunday night ESPN baseball. He used “floundered.” I think he’s a moron. I had to check his usage. I was slightly chagrined to find he was actually correct and I hadn’t a clue.

  8. @ judi – Joe Morgan is awesome. A great baseball commentator who is sadly hard for young kids, newbies, and East Coast AL fans hard to get. Joe judged a team by what they did not because of what their predecessors did. I will grant you that people are annoyed by his penchant for prattling on about how great those old players were but that is a welcome trade for the wealth of knowledge he brings to the press box. Mr. Morgan never kissed up to the Yankees or the Red Sox and a lot of folks hated him for it. But for my money he’s far more enjoyable to listen to than Bob “not a clue how the game is played but aw-shucks I love it” Costas or Joe “my dad Jack was great but I appear to be fighting through a coma” Buck…or is that floundering through a coma?

  9. “None of them thought (or knew) to correct me, so I preceded to think that I had solved the mystery.”

    You mean PROCEEDED.

  10. Haha, I’m just pleasantly surprised that you bothered to correct the error on such an old post in a timely manner.. can’t believe four years passed without anyone mentioning it..

  11. Thanks for the guide – even after being a Sailor for 20 years, I still got “founder” and “flounder” mixed up. I happened to be reading Robinson Carusoe (in which he uses “founder”), so I thought I’d look it up to see if the word had simply been changed over the years (or if I had been using it incorrectly all along)… I should just stick with “the ship is going to sink” instead of “the ship is going to founder.”

  12. Interesting that the distinction between the meanings of FLounder and founder parallels the distinction between the meanings of FLail and fail. Nice point, ak77.

  13. From Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Chapter 10:

    “Sitting up, [Toad] could just see the motor-car in the pond, nearly submerged; the gentlemen and the driver, encumbered by their long coats, were floundering helplessly in the water.”