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Q From Raymond Wargo, Vancouver: What’s the origin of faffing which means to aimlessly waste time doing useless tasks?

A It’s originally British, informal but not rude, and moderately common, especially in the form to faff about. The Daily Telegraph included this on 15 March 2008: “The early boarders certainly bag their seats quickly, but then they immediately relax and happily faff about putting their things in the overhead locker, generally getting in the way of the other passengers.”

It can be used as a politer alternative to another four-letter word beginning with f but has no link with it. It starts to appear as a dialect word in Scotland and Northern England at the end of the eighteenth century, as a description of the wind blowing in puffs or small gusts. A North Yorkshire glossary of 1868 described how it was used: “As when a person blows chaff away from corn held in his hands, or the wind when it causes brief puffs of smoke to return down the chimney.”

It may have been imitative of the sound of gusty wind, or it may be a variation on maffle, a more widely distributed dialect term in Scotland and England that means to stutter or stammer, or to waste time and procrastinate; this might be from the old Dutch regional word maffelen, meaning to move the jaws. There’s also faffle, another dialect word, which also means to stammer or stutter, and which might have influenced the sense.

The word started to move into the wider language in its modern sense around the end of the nineteenth century, though it didn’t much appear in print until the 1980s.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Aug. 2008

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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.

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Last modified: 2 August 2008.