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shameless pleading






The wonderful word … what?

Dear WD — What can you tell me about the wonderful word “kerfuffle”? I first heard it in the film “Anne of Green Gables” from the lips of Colleen Dewhurst, then recently saw it in print while reading Bryce Courtenay’s novel “The Power of One,” where, if I’m not mistaken, it appears twice. The meaning is clear enough from the context, but I would love to know more about it, and it does not appear in any of the numerous dictionaries I possess. — Sam Holdsambeck.

You are not alone — “kerfuffle” doesn’t appear in most of the dictionaries I possess either, and that’s a lot of dictionaries for a word not to appear in. Incidentally, before the Legion of Fussies gets all riled up about my ending that last sentence with a preposition, allow me to quote H.W. Fowler (of “Modern English Usage” fame) on the subject:

“Those who lay down the universal principle that all final prepositions are ‘inelegant’ are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers….”

So save your stamps, folks. It’s not wrong.

Meanwhile, back at “kerfuffle,” please join me in a rousing three cheers for the Oxford English Dictionary, which does list “kerfuffle” as a variant of “curfuffle.” Other forms include “carfuffle,” “cafuffle,” “kafuffle,” “kufuffle” and “gefuffle.” However you may spell it, “curfuffle” means a “disorder, flurry, or agitation.” A fuss. A ruckus. There’s a verb form of “curfuffle” (and all its variants) too, meaning “to cause a commotion or put in a state of disorder.”

“Curfuffle” turns out to be a word in Scots, the language of Scotland, though it has been used in English prose since the early 18th century. It’s actually an intensive form of the Scots word “fuffle,” meaning “to disturb,” which itself has been used in English since the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary considers “fuffle” to be an onomatopoeic formation, meaning that whoever coined the word thought it mimicked the actual sound of a disturbance, as “bang” is supposed to sound like an explosion.

6 comments to Kerfuffle

  • Moley

    On the subject of the LoF getting riled at sentences ending in propositions, Winston Churchill said something to the effect of it being pedantry “up with which I will not put.”

  • caitlin

    Kerfuffle is a British word that means a disturbance, a fuss, or a commotion. It is a noun, or in other words, a person, a place, or a thing.

  • Dylan

    My parents used “kerfuffle”, normally as a verb, to indicate two lovers involved in a romantic embrace. They would often say of my teenage sister, “Gloria, stop kerfuffling behind the rosebushes”. I was surprised to discover the real meaning. Thank you TWD.

  • Ron

    Thank you, “Word Detective” for a most delightful explanation of the word “kerfuffle”, for which I was searching after getting an email from a friend who stated she had been in a “kerfuffle” with her cat. I think I knew right away what had happened, but I was soon caught up with the journey back to the history of the word and the numerous comments from other visitors. Thank you, ‘Word Detective’!

  • Marsha

    Thank you for such a clear and thorough definition and history. It’s a great word! Recently they asked on “Says Who” on NPR, “What’s the difference between a kerfuffle and a dust-up?” What do you say?

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