Tag Archives: word history

Kerfuffle

Hello,

With the excitement of the book launch for “Words The Sea Gave Us” mostly behind me now it’s time for a non-nautical word this week – kerfuffle.

A kerfuffle is defined as “noise, excitement, and argument” (thanks to the Cambridge Dictionary, the pronunciation is available there too). Some other dictionaries note the word is informal British English. Apart from the argument, that sums up last week for me.

I guessed kerfuffle would be an old word but Etymology Online, usually reliable on dates, says it only entered English in the 1970s, was used with a variant spelling (kafuffle) from the 1940s, and in Canadian English from the 1930s.

The spelling variation leads us back further in the word’s history as the previous version is carfuffle, when it was being used by Scottish writers. The car to ka or ker change is pretty natural as there is no letter K in the alphabet for Scots Gaelic (or Irish Gaeilge for that matter), so you have English speakers adjusting the spelling when they adopted the word.

The fuffle part, however, didn’t change and it gets us further back in time. Fuffle dates back to the 1500s and was a Scottish verb meaning to disorder or dishevel (can one be hevelled, I wonder?).

The Scottish roots explain, in my opinion at least, the connection to Canadian English as the point where carfuffle crossed into English and became kerfuffle. Many Scottish emigrants settled in the eastern coastal regions of Canada during the 1800s. Apparently if you visit areas like Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island you’ll find plenty of Gaelic accents and language influences. I hope to explore that in person myself some day.

I enjoyed the kerfuffle of the book launch last week and I’m very happy to welcome new blog readers who found Wordfoolery as a result <waves>. A few readers have already been kind enough to review the book favourably, thank you, it really helps the visibility of the book online, even if it’s only a few words.

Those of you who read ebooks on Apple devices (phone, tablet, macbook) may find it worthwhile to hop over to my twitter account as I’m currently running a giveaway of a free Apple Books / iBooks edition. It’s free to enter and open internationally in any country where such books are sold (US, UK, Canada, Ireland etc).

Last week also found me participating in my first ever radio interview when SinĂ©ad Brassil of LMFM radio kindly asked me to chat about my books and the history of words. She podcasted the interview so if you’re curious you can listen to it here. It’s about 15 minutes long and includes the history of boycotts, booby traps, and more. My teens are now referring to me as a word history celebrity and hoping their friends don’t find out. Sigh.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. this post contains affiliate links which make a small payment to the blog if you choose to purchase through them. #CommissionsEarned. Alternatively, you can use my digital tip jar.

Welcome to my Hibernacle

Hello,

It snowed here last night, a rare enough event on Ireland’s east coast, a scattering of the white stuff lies on the grass outside my house and the paths are icy. The temperature on the walk to school was low enough to convince me to postpone my daily walk until noon when it will hopefully be warmer. Instead I’ve retreated to my hibernacle.

My hibernacle, don’t you have one?

Mine consists of a soft purple blanket nest, a good book, and a large bar of quality chocolate.

My hibernacle

A hibernacle is “a place where an animal hibernates, but it can also mean a winter retreat for humans” according to The Free Dictionary.

Humans and hibernating animals have shared the history of hibernacle from the start. The word arose in New Latin from hibernaculum which means winter quarters or tents for winter. Animals don’t live in tents so clearly the origin is with winter shelter for humans. Soldiers or nomads would need a stronger, more snow-proof, shelter in winter than what’s required in warmer months. Of course here in Ireland you need something waterproof year-round.

By the 1690s hibernacle entered English in the animal biology sense, as a shelter for over-wintering animals. It has retained that sense to modern times but there’s a case for bringing back the human version too. Yes, we can’t hibernate but the appeal of curling up under a blanket with a box-set or good book is strong on snow-days.

If you don’t have a hibernacle, perhaps it’s time to create one?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling in your hibernacle,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Fulsome, or is it?

Hello & Happy New Year,

This week’s word is thanks to my friend Deirdre who mentioned its murky ambiguity when we were hiking last weekend. Fulsome, it transpires, has two, contradictory meanings.

My much-used 1984 Collins English Dictionary simply refers readers from fulsome (pronunciation here) to the definition for full, but the history of this word is far from simple.

Merriam-Webster explains this word, whose first use was in the 1300s, was originally a Middle English version of itself – fulsom coming directly from compounding the words full and some. However its meaning wasn’t the same then. Back then fulsome meant cloying or over the top. Interestingly the OED claims the word dates to 1250 and meant abundant originally so the confusion may go “way back”.

The effusive meaning persisted but the idea of fulsome as abundant gained ground through the 1600s, leaving wordsmiths in a quandary. By the 1800s the positive sense died away and even left dictionaries but by the 1900s the positive sense overtook the negative, leaving the dictionaries wrong-footed.

A fulsome huggle of teds

In modern use fulsome can again, go either way. If the head of state gives fulsome praise or a fulsome apology to a politician, it’s now almost impossible to tell if that’s a good or a bad thing. Best advice? Steer clear of fulsome until the meaning settles because using it is bound to cause confusion.

Until next time I wish you a fulsome January,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)