No muss but lots of fuss.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of “kerfuffle”?  I assume it is a manufactured word.  The first I heard it was on an episode of the BBC series “As Time Goes By.”  I thought it was a delightful word.  I’ve seen it used more and more on this side of the pond, even in your most recent column.  Is it British in origin?  How long has it been around? — David H. Hendon.

Well, there you go.  My plan is still working.  Many years ago I discovered that the way to ensure a steady stream of questions about interesting words is to drop unusual words and phrases  into my explanations of other, unrelated words, thus subliminally “seeding” the readers’ minds with the new word.  Lo and behold, I usually soon receive a question about the word I used.  I’m sure they do something similar with genetically-engineered crops.  Come to think of it, maybe that’s why food doesn’t taste like anything anymore.  Well, I hope it’s the opposite with words.

By my calculations (aided by Google, of course), I have used “kerfuffle” in four of my columns over the years, including once back in 1995 when I actually explained the word.  A “kerfuffle” is a ruckus, a disruption, a fuss, a brouhaha, a bother, a hoopla, a flurry or a commotion.  A “kerfuffle” may generate a lot of sound and fury, but rarely actually signifies much of anything (“A lot of our readers are going to think all this kerfuffle over an old skeleton being snatched is … a bit of a joke,” Kingsley Amis, 1973).  In a column earlier this year, for instance, I referred to the “lipstick on a pig” controversy in the US presidential campaign as a “kerfuffle.”  A “kerfuffle” may send your blood pressure soaring, but it’s usually over pretty quickly.

“Kerfuffle” has been with us since the early 19th century, although until just after the Second World War it was, oddly enough, spelled “curfuffle.”  Go figure.  There were actually several spellings of the word at various times early in its history because it was considered too informal for serious writing and therefore spread largely by mouth.

The root of “kerfuffle” is the very old Scots verb “fuffle,” which first appeared in print in the early 16th century and means “to throw into disorder.”  The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the “ker” part of “kerfuffle” may hare come from the Gaelic word “car,” meaning “to twist, bend or turn around.”  In the case of “kerfuffle,” that would serve as a sort of intensive element, giving us the sense of “a twisted up, confused ruckus or dispute.”  Sounds like every “kerfuffle” I’ve ever seen.

9 comments on this post.
  1. Alex:

    ‘Kerfuffle’ is one of those amazingly-slightly-eccentric words that I frequently use!

  2. Nancy L. Fagin:

    Kerfuffle was used in NYT article 5/9/11 about Adolf Eichmann.

  3. Donna:

    Found this delightful word in a book of Aesops fables rewritten and illustrated by Helen Ward. Love it!

  4. Walking…Me??? | Gypsy Joy:

    […] […]

  5. Kate L:

    Love the word & love your site for explanations of
    words & origins.

  6. Anonymous:

    A spiffing post!

  7. Bill Dunning:

    “Kerfuffle” is a favorite word of Nero Wolfe, the popular detective created by Rex Stout. Wolfe, famously portrayed on radio and film by Sidney Greenstreet, is of Montenegran origin, weighs one-seventh of a ton (you figure it out) and solves crimes by sitting at home in his New York brownstone and thinking while clients come and go and his wise-cracking assistant, Archie Goodwin, does the legwork. One important mythology is that Wolfe was the love-child of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle. Like them, he never actually lived, so he will never die.

  8. Anonymous:

    Simple. There is no K in Scots Gaelic nor, in the Irish Gaeilge

  9. Anonymous:

    Cíor thuathail. is a term used in Irish Gaeilge, in the same manner as ‘Kerfuffle’ is used in English,
    Pronounced ‘Keerhuhill’ it means in a state of commotion, in a tangle, at ‘sixes and sevens’ confusion or disarray.

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