After the collapse of the Roman Empire the Anglo-Saxons, the Germanic peoples that invaded Britain, may have brought along this character from their legends who was an apprentice to Wayland Smith, the Norse/Saxon deity of metalworking.
Flibbertigibbets come in various varieties-- fleper-gebet and flypyr-gebet are the earliest from of the word.
Both are found in a manuscript published before 1450. About fifty years later the word fliper implying that a fliper was 'a frivlous person; a babbler’ and eventually according to Merriam-Webster it acquired the onomatopoeic flibberty-gibberty.
During the era of Middle English it was spelled flipergebet and by 1549 it took on its current spelling.What a fun little word to say! It was most likely a nonsense word intended to jingle along like the fast-talking gibberish it’s meant to represent. People in 1603 were using the term to denote the name of a devil or fiend. Pronounced flib"ber*ti*gib`bet today the expression is meant to describe a silly, scatterbrained, or garrulous person and the adjective flibbertigibbety describes "the man round the corner or a comic character who overhears everything."
The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable published in 1898 ties the term to William Shakespeare explaining that he borrowed the name from,”… Bishop Harsnet’s account of the Spanish invasion, where we are told of forty fiends, which the Jesuits cast out, and among the number was Fliberdigibet.” Michael Quinion at Weird Words relates a similar but slightly different interpretation saying it began as a word to portray a “gossip or chattering person, but quickly seems to have taken on the idea of a flighty or frivolous woman.” In a sermon 100 years later, “it had become respectable enough for Bishop Latimer to use it in a sermon before King Edward VI, though he wrote it as flybbergybe.” Quinion attributes Shakespeare as borrowing it from a set of “ 40 fiends listed in a book by Samuel Harsnet in 1603.” Which is only a few decades before King Lear was produced. As Webster 1913 notes it was Shakespeare who liked the idea of this little character so much he brings it into a brief focus during the climax of the story that takes place on the heath in his tragedy.
Sandwiched between Othello and Macbeth, King Lear is more often than not put in the same category beside Hamlet as one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. The date of King Lear’s first publication is from the First Folio edition in 1623. One likely incident that may have inspired the subject of this play is a lawsuit that took place not long before the play was written in which the eldest of three sisters endeavors to have her aged father, Sir Brian Annesley, declared insane so that she could take control of his property. In the play parallel stories between two main characters Lear and Gloucester suffer at the hands of their own offspring. It mirrored the worries that would have been too close to home for Shakespeare’s audience so he places the setting of the play in 8th century B.C.
Like other tragic heroes Lear starts out with a basic flaw where he values appearances above reality. He wishes to be treated as a king and to benefit from the title, but he doesn’t feel like fulfilling a king’s responsibilities of governing for the good of his subjects. Lear sets out across the heath in the midst of a storm and in front of a hut he meets up with Edgar in one of his many disguises, Tom O’Bedlam. He carries on this impersonation as Lear and Gloucester commiserate over the actions of their daughters.
In part, the theme of the storm echoes Lear’s inner turmoil and mounting madness. Edgar’s outward description of the demon becomes representative of a reflection of Lear’s internal confusion. With Edgar disguised as a crazy beggar and calling himself “Poor Tom.” Flibbertigibbet is one of the five foul fiends that possess him.
“ This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet: he begins
at curfew, and walks till the first cock; he gives
the web and the pin, squints the eye, and makes the
hare-lip; mildews the white wheat, and hurts the
poor creature of earth..”
--King Lear : Act 3, Scene 4
In the end Lear never does completely recover his sanity and emerge as a better king yet he still manages to develop as a character by becoming a more insightful person. As an spectator to the meteorological chaos in the natural world, Lear comes to recognize that he, like the rest of humankind, is inconsequential in the world. This realization proves much more important than the awareness of his loss of political control through his daughters, an important message to the fragile culture of the Elizabethan era.
In 1821 Sir Walter Scott penned Kenilworth giving Flibbertigibbet as the name of a character that became so popular it created another sense of meaning as a naughty and fickle tot. Still regardless of Scott’s novel, it was Shakespeare’s replication from a slightly earlier work and his use of it in Lear that undoubtedly popularized the current form that remains today.
Online Etymology Dictionary: