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Pronounced /kəˈfʌf(ə)l/Help with pronunciation

You will most commonly come across this wonderfully expressive word for a commotion or fuss in Britain and the British Commonwealth countries. It is rather informal, though it often appears in newspapers.

Though the White House spokesman Ari Fleischer used it in January 2002, it hasn’t been especially well-known there and a later presidential usage caused something of a kerfuffle:

President Bush used “kerfuffle” Monday during an appearance in Ohio, and in so doing, he created a minor one himself. Some of the president-watchers on duty in the press gallery had to stop in midstory and explain to America this novel new word from the man who gave us “misunderestimated.”

The Lima News (Ohio), 22 Mar. 2006.

One of the odder things about it is that it changed its first letter in quite recent times. Up to the 1960s, it was written in all sorts of ways — curfuffle, carfuffle, cafuffle, cafoufle, even gefuffle (a clear indication that its main means of transmission was in speech, being too rarely written down to have established a standard spelling). But in that decade it suddenly became much more popular and settled on the current kerfuffle. Lexicographers suspect the change came in response to the way that a number of imitative words were spelled, like kerplop and kerplunk.

In those cases, the initial ker– adds emphasis, as it does in other words, perhaps onomatopoeic but perhaps also borrowing the initial sound of crash. But we know kerfuffle was originally Scots and it’s thought that its first part came from Scots Gaelic car, to twist or bend. The second bit is more of a puzzle: there is a Scots verb fuffle (now known only in local dialect), to throw into disorder, dishevel, or ruffle. No obvious origin for it is known and experts suspect it was an imitative word. It is probably linked with Scots fuff, to emit puffs of smoke or steam, definitely imitative, which in the late eighteenth century also had a sense of going off in a huff or flying into a temper.

Some specialists think kerfuffle is also related to the Irish cior thual, confusion or disorder. It seems to be a minority opinion, though.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 18 May 2002

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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.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-ker1.htm
Last modified: 18 May 2002.