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Thursday, Nov 14, 2019

Word of the week by Shashi Tharoor: This week’s word, Kerfuffle

It’s a fuss of a different nature — one that should not be taken seriously

columns Updated: Nov 09, 2019 18:33 IST
Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor
Hindustan Times
Save the use of “kerfuffle” for a trivial row, or an unjustified or exaggerated ruckus.
Save the use of “kerfuffle” for a trivial row, or an unjustified or exaggerated ruckus.(HT Illustration: Mohit Suneja)
         

Kerfuffle (noun), a disorderly outburst, tumult, row, ruckus or disturbance. A disorder, flurry, or agitation. A fuss.

Usage: In view of the kerfuffle around my tweet wrongly attributing to the US a picture of Nehruji in the USSR, I thought it best to tweet some pictures that really showed him in the US.

Kerfuffle turns out to quite commonly used in Scots, the language of Scotland, and is an intensive form of the Scots word “fuffle,” meaning “to disturb.” The modern word comes from the Scottish “curfuffle” by way of earlier similar expressions that were spelt variously as curfuffle, carfuffle, cafuffle, cafoufle, even gefuffle. This suggests that the word was mainly used orally and that it was usually transmitted through conversational usage rather than written language – such expressions in popular speech often were spelled differently when people bothered to write them down, which is why it took till the 1960s for the standard spelling of kerfuffle to be established.

The word “kerfuffle“ is much more commonly used in Britain and the Commonwealth than in the US. It is said that when the younger President Bush used “kerfuffle” in 2006 during an appearance in Ohio, he created a minor kerfuffle himself, because television channels broadcasting his remarks live had to interrupt their shows to explain the word to Middle America. (This is not entirely surprising, after all, since Bush 43, as he was known, and who had, after all, coined the Bushism “misunderestimated,” was not exactly famous for using the language correctly.)

There’s something about the sound of the word kerfuffle that also lends itself to slightly dismissive usage – a kerfuffle is not just a fuss but a fuss that should not be taken too seriously. I used it, for instance, to refer to the huge fuss made about my misattributed photo on Twitter, because this kerfuffle was a distraction from the real debate that we should have been having, which was whether the public turnout for an Indian Prime Minister in a foreign country was in any way unprecedented. What Brits might call “a storm in a teacup” can be called a kerfuffle. But a major clash, serious disagreement or monumental fiasco should not be termed a mere kerfuffle, since that would diminish it in the telling.

So save “kerfuffle” for a trivial row, or an unjustified or exaggerated ruckus. There are plenty of those in social media anyway, all serving as weapons of mass distraction, to take the public’s minds off the real problems we should all be dealing with. Maybe my saying that will cause another kerfuffle!