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Foofaraw

Pronounced /ˈfuːfərɔː/Help with pronunciation

Foofaraw is common enough in North America, though it has never become widely known elsewhere. The earliest senses were of something vain, fussy, tawdry or gaudy — baubles, bangles or beads. In time, the sense shifted to mean frivolous accoutrements or trappings, then the word became a dismissive adjective with the sense of being vain or stuck-up and later it took on the idea of ostentation. The most common sense nowadays came last of all, of a fuss or brouhaha, a minor altercation one might call a storm in a teacup (though, it being American, perhaps tempest in a teapot would be more appropriate).

What qualifies it for inclusion in this section is partly its odd look and partly its curious origin. Dictionaries mostly play safe and say “origin unknown”, while noting that it began to be used in the 1930s. The Oxford English Dictionary has recently compiled an entry, based in part on the one that’s in the Dictionary of American Regional English, which takes the story back much further.

There are a lot of examples from the late 1840s onwards, variously spelled as fofarraw, fofarrow, frufraw, foofooraw, among others. It isn’t well recorded in its early days and there are big gaps in its history, but etymologists are sure it’s the same word. The earliest example, in Blackwood’s Magazine for June 1848, is in an article written by an adventurous Englishman named George Frederick Augustus Ruxton, who travelled in the Rocky Mountains and who wrote a book, Life in the Far West, that was published in 1849.

The word was used by traders, trappers and explorers in the area. The experts point to Spanish fanfarrón, a braggart or blusterer, and to the related French fanfaron. These terms were picked up by English speakers from French and Spanish frontiersmen. As often happens with strange foreign words, hearers misheard and mangled them. Later development was probably influenced by the French word frou-frou, frills or ornamentation, which began as an imitation of the rustling noise made by a woman walking in a dress.

A delightful example appears in John Varley’s SF novel Steel Beach: “All in all, it was the goldarndest, Barnum-and-Baileyest, rib-stickinest, rough-and-tumblest infernal foofaraw of a media circus anybody had seen since grandpaw chased the possum down the road and lost his store teeth, and I was heartily sorry to have been a part of it.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Nov. 2007

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 3 November 2007.