March 30, 2007


kerfuffle n. chiefly British: disturbance, fuss--Webster 3

[ker-FUH'-ful] [ScGlae cearr wrong, awkward) + fuffle to become disheveled]
Alternative spellings: curfuffle, kurfuffle

New York Times
March 25, 2007
"When Will Fredo Get Whacked?"
Op-Ed Column
By Frank Rich

Even Bush loyalists have rarely shown respect for this crony whom the president saddled with the nickname Fredo; they revolted when Mr. Bush flirted with appointing him to the Supreme Court and shun him now. The attorney general’s alleged infraction —misrepresenting a Justice Department purge of eight United States attorneys, all political appointees, for political reasons — seems an easy-to-settle kerfuffle next to his infamous 2002 memo dismissing the Geneva Conventions’ strictures on torture as “quaint” and “obsolete.”


No one seems to know from where or why the first element of kerfuffle, "ker," appeared in 1843 in England. Possibly, some one attempted to represent an akinetic pause before a fall or a kind of wind-up or a deep breath before throwing a punch, a ball, or some other object in an ultimately concussive event.

Etymologists at the OED put it this way: "The first element ["ker"appears] in numerous *onomatopic or echoic formations intended to imitate the sound or the effect of the fall of some heavy body, as kerchunk, -flop, -plunk, -slam, -slap, -slash, -souse, -swash, -swosh, -thump, -whop, etc."

(*The onomatopic formation, or onomatopoeia, is a word derived from the sound of that which is being named or described. Examples: zip, skirl, bubble, sizzle.)

Kerplunk! So much for the mysterious yet effective and increasingly popular opening element: "ker." Now on to the root of the word.

The root of kerfuffle, "fuf" or "fuff," is unfamiliar to most Americans. The British, however, can draw from a large plate of familiar meanings, as the following offerings from the OED demonstrate. (I've highlighted language that seems to fitting to a disturbance or a fuss.)
  • fuff: the ‘spit’ of a cat
  • fuff: v. To puff. Said of a fire, breeze etc.; also, of a person in anger or out of breath. Also, to fume and fuff. . . .
  • fuff: a. Used to imitate a sound, b. An exclamation of contempt.
  • fuffle: rare v. To throw into disorder; to jerk about; to hustle, treat with contumely. Hence fuffled ppl. a. Also fuffle n., violent exertion, fuss.
In sum, kerfuffle, which means a disturbance or squabble, opens with "ker-" a sort of "proto-intensifier" and ends with the root "fuffle"--a fuss.

This is one of those words that's fun to see, to say and to hear. Each time I see kerfuffle, it seems to sub-audibly pop or fuff-up from the page like a dog happy to see me.


Reading any further is up to you. If you do read all or any of the 27 quotations below, you'll be doing so for the sheer fun of it.

While deep in the "words worthy" depths of the OED Online, I spotted this set of quotations featuring "ker-words" and found them amusing. I thought others might enjoy seeing them as well.

Hey, maybe we could start a club, the Kerclub Club! Everybody would promise to further the power of ker-words by using one every day and reading books by the ker-savvy writers quoted below: Mark Twain, Zora Neile Hurston, T. S. Eliot, H. G. Wells, as well as scribes at Punch, The Observer, and The New Yorker.

Ker-wow! Am I ever ker-fired-up about these ker-words! Hope you like 'em too.


1836 Public Ledger (Philadelphia) 27 July (Th.), Down I came chewallop..and overset the chair.

1843 Major Jones's Courtship i. (Farmer), Kerslash! I went rite over Miss Stallinses spinnin' wheel onto the floor.

Ibid. (Bartlett), Kerslosh he went into a tub of water.

1844 ‘J. SLICK’ High Life N.Y. II. 88 We drew up co-wallop right afore Jase's house.

Ibid. 154 Ca-smash went the chair.

1850 Americans at Home I. (Bartlett), The dugout hadn't leaped more'n six lengths from the bank, I went.

1854 M. J. HOLMES Tempest & Sunshine 2 Then, again, you'll go in co-slush.

1855 Spirit of Times 29 Sept. 387/1 And the fust thing you knows he falls and down he comes kerflumix.

1858 S. P. AVERY Harp of Thousand Strings 44 He fellkerslapupon the hot goose of the pressman!

1875 My Opin. & Betsey Bobbet's 99, I fell kerslap over a rail that lay in the grass.

1884 ‘MARK TWAIN’ Huck. Finn xxiii. 234 Jes' den, 'long come de wind en slam it to, behine de chile, ker-blam!

1885 J. RUNCIMAN Skippers & Shellbacks 85 They hoists him over and lets him go ker-whop.

1897 Outing (U.S.) XXX. 127/2 Across the lower end of the swamp..back we go kerslosh-kersplash for another quarter of a mile.

1899 F. T. BULLEN Way Navy 52 Down came the bunch of sacks kerslam on the deck below.

1903 Outing XLIII. 83/1 The sound made by the water when the frog dives, we used to express when we were boys, by the word kerplunk.

1908 Magnet I. 1, ‘Ker-woosh!’ ejaculated the junior, as he sprawled on the floor over Harry Wharton's legs. ‘What's that in the way?’

1923 Public Opinion 15 June 565/1 With both feet set down kerplunk he closed the interview.

1926 F. M. FORD Man could stand Up II. iv. 164 Kerumph the wagons of coal would fly over until we recalled our planes.

1935 H. G. WELLS Things to Come xi. 96 Can I go when I grow up? And see the other side of the moon! And plump back ker-splosh! into the sea!

1937 New Masses 26 Oct. 18/1 Their [sc. Hollywood journalists'] vernacular divides the failures into three subdivisions: flop, flopperoo, and ker-plunk.

1939 T. S. ELIOT Old Possum's Pract. Cats 17 Growltiger to his vast surprise was forced to walk the plank. He who a hundred victims had driven to that drop, At the end of all his crimes was forced to go ker-flip, ker-flop.

1939 J. CARY Mr. Johnson 41, I go trow him..In de river Thames, kersplash.

1942 Z. N. HURSTON in A. Dundes Mother Wit (1973) 26/2 Ker-blam-er-lam-er-lam! And dat was de last of Brer Engine-driving Monk.

1959 M. GILBERT Blood & Judgment vi. 59 The boat hit the surface with a solid ker-splash.

1963 Punch 30 Jan. 178/2 The boot..kerplonked to the carpet as straight and true as Newton's apple.

1963 New Yorker 29 June 26 That's why I nearly went kerplunk when you walked out of here with him.

1970 Observer (Colour Suppl.) 15 Feb. 36/4 They wear..extraordinary bathing costumes with Mighty Mouse zigzags across their chests, so that one half-expects them to rush about the beach shouting ‘Pow!’ and ‘Zap!’ and ‘Kerrump!’


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