Dear WD: The other night on TV I heard David Letterman refer to some controversy as a “great brouhaha.” Is this a real word, and if so, where did it come from? — K.W., New York, NY.
Yes, “brouhaha” is a real word, meaning “fuss,” “argument” or “ruckus.” “Brouhaha” comes to English directly from French, where it originally meant “noisy chattering.” It is probably what linguists call an “echoic” or “imitative” word, the “haha” in particular imitating the sound of a noisy squabble. Today we use it to mean a dispute that produces more noise than substance — a “brouhaha” rarely amounts to a serious debate or even scandal. Madonna’s pathetic antics, for instance, produce one “brouhaha” after another, yet no one aside from hard-core MTV viewers pays much attention any more.
“Ruckus,” by the way, is another funny-sounding word with an interesting history. It’s actually a blend of two words, “rumpus” and “ruction,” with very different origins. “Rumpus” was coined by 18th century German and Swiss students to describe a riot or uproar, and lives on today in our phrase “rumpus room,” a place in the house where children are allowed to run wild. “Ruction” means pretty much the same thing as “rumpus,” but has a somewhat grimmer origin. The original “ruction” was the Irish Insurrection of 1798, a violent agrarian rebellion. By the early 19th century, “insurrection” had been cropped to “ruction,” and the word became a popular synonym for any violent and destructive quarrel or disturbance. As “rumpus” and “ruction” came to be combined in common usage, the cheerier tone of “rumpus” overcame the grim legacy of “ruction,” and a “ruckus” today is little more than a “brouhaha” — much ado about nearly nothing.