Founder or Flounder?


OK, I’m going to deal with this. For as long as I can remember, I have been cursed with the inability to remember the difference between founder and flounder. I’ve just hit a point in my WIP when one main character is drowning, and another ploughs headlong into the water to save him, and I found myself yet again trying to remember which of these two words I’m looking for.

So, in an attempt to make this stick in my brain once and for all, I’m going to write this down and publish it on the blog. It might not be the most informative, helpful or entertaining thing I’ve ever written, but maybe it will help me retain this piece of information. Maybe there are other ditzy Cancerians out there who might benefit from this kind of granular shit, too.

Right, let’s do this properly, and make a game of it. Here’s our scenario.

The priest is drowning. He’s just been deposited in a strange ocean, with very little warning. The tide is drawing him away from an island dominated by strange black rocks. He gasps as water fills his mouth, his arms already becoming tired. He continues to flail, heart hammering. The water is very cold. Something vast circles around him in the water, a dark shadow, like a noose slowly drawing taut. He begins to sink.

So, what do you think? Does the priest founder or flounder?

Take your pick!

Now, let’s see if you were right. What were the names of the two contenders, again?

Well, in the blue corner, we have Founder. This word can mean either ‘to fill with water and sink,’ just like the Titanic, or it can mean ‘to falter, fail or collapse.’ Apparently – and I didn’t know this – it can also mean ‘to get sick after eating too much.’ So if you chose this one, you were wrong. Unlucky.

In the red corner, we have Flounder. This word generally means ‘to struggle to no avail,’ especially in water. If you sat down to take a test and hadn’t done any revision, you might flounder. If you were asked, “Which of Lenin’s words moved you the most?” you might flounder too (not me, though; I love I Am The Walrus)*. If you chose this option, you were right. Go you!

So the priest is in the water, arms flailing, half-way drowned. He is a textbook flounderer. If he had been a passenger on a ship, and the ship had sprung a leak, and he had jumped overboard, he would be floundering and the ship would be foundering.

But wait, these words are almost exactly the same. How on earth am I going to remember this, and make sure I use the right word going forward?

Well, I have a plan. The word founder contains the word found. The meaning of this word is to sink, fail, etc. so you could say that it has ‘found’ its resting place. A foundered ship has found the bottom of the ocean; a foundered horse has found the ground.

As for flounder, it shares more in common with flail than founder does; a person who flounders is going to be flailing, if he or she is doing it properly (and if you fail at floundering, that means you’re swimming, I suppose… which means you’re pretty much safe… until you get into the shore and founder through sheer exhaustion, at which point you get pulled out to sea again, and flounder. There’s no escape).

So the ship sank and found the bottom of the ocean… it foundered.

The heroine falls into the sea and flails in a panic… she’s floundering.

This might just help me remember the difference.


*If I can fit a Big Lebowski reference into three blog posts in a row, I win a bowling ball.