Thursday, January 05, 2006

Snob Games 2

What's that word he's about to utter?...

DON'T BREAK THE CHAIN. The other day, InstaPunk administered a righteous beating to one Mark Gauvreau Judge, spokesman for the "metrosexual conservative" demographic (and, apparently, the world's number one fan of Polo cologne). This isn't a continuation of InstaPunk's essay. It's just that we thought of it when we read the following in a NYT column by Ana Marie Cox today:

Paul Miller, who as president of the American League of Lobbyists (that's the one with the designated-hitter rule) has the thankless task of defending his trade, told reporters he was reluctant to say that Mr. Abramoff even deserved to be called a member of the profession. O.K., but he deserves to be called other things. Some of them unprintable in family newspapers.

Other modern Congressional kerfuffles have not been as flashy.

Yeah, we should probably be talking about what she's talking about -- the terrible discovery that members of the United States Congress may be corrupt. Or we should be talking about the topic Protein Wisdom just did a 12,000 word post about:

NSA kerfuffle: redux (UPDATED and UPDATED AGAIN 10:25 PM MT)

Drawing on remarks from both the President and the Attorney General yesterday—and on the responses I was reading around the blogosphere—I began to suspect that the divisions we’re seeing in the debate over executive authority to authorize domestic surveillance is a function not merely of politics, but also of the paradigm through which.... [and so on and so on and so on]

But we are punk conservatives, not "metro-cons," and so we got distracted from the big issues of the day by a pesky little question that wouldn't go away:  In the sensory deprived environment of the blogosphere, what do you suppose would be the verbal equivalent of the metrosexuals' Polo cologne?

Well, in our lowbrow opinion, it's words like 'kerfuffle.'

It's not that we don't like cool words. It's that we tend to be suspicious about sudden vogues in usage. Several years back, for example, we got pretty annoyed about the mysteriously wide incidence of the word 'divisive' pronounced with three short 'i's. Chris Matthews seemed to be a principal malefactor in this misdemeanor of diction. The correct pronunciation in American English calls for the second 'i' to be long, just as it is when we say the root word 'divide.' (Duh..) We didn't know about metrosexuals back then, but this little affectation of speech seems a perfect fit with their esthetic. It makes a plain and useful word into a pseudo-Oxbridge declaration of personal superiority: "Oh? You didn't know how we cognoscenti say this word? Ah. Hmmm. There you go."

(And though we can't prove it, we'd swear that some of the 'divisive' poseurs were simultaneously participating in the equally sudden and widespread conflation of the words 'phenomenon' and 'phenomena,' which we had lived -- most of us anyway -- for close to half a century without encountering. The first is singular, the second plural in accordance with Classical Greek grammar, except that some subset of pseudo-intellectuals and science-documentary narrators have decided it's the opposite. Please excuse the digression.)

And lately we've been gritting our teeth at the instant popularity of this word 'kerfuffle,' which pops up at every turn in both the Op-Ed punditry of the MSM and in the blogosphere. It's true we haven't hunted down every instance, but we're pretty sure that the offenders include Glenn Reynolds, Andrew Sullivan, Jonah Goldberg, and dozens of lesser known bloggers. And it may seem exceptionally petty to say so, but it bothers us.

It's not that we dispute its existence as a word. It has an etymology and a definition. lists it thus:


      1. colloq
            A commotion; agitation.

Etymology: From Gaelic car- + Scots fuffle to disorder.

Irish and Scots blood abounds here, so we can scarcely frame our objection around its origins. What then?  This elaboration of its history begins to point the way:


A commotion or fuss.

You will most commonly come across this wonderfully expressive word in Britain and the British Commonwealth countries (though the White House spokesman Ari Fleischer used it in January this year). It is rather informal, though it often appears in newspapers. 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. 

The bottom line? It's become a snooty vogue word via the Brits. We don't object to the existence of such words or their occasional use. We're fans, for example, of P.G. Wodehouse, whose writing is full of such quaint Brit colloquialisms -- pshaw, struth, zooks, tally-ho, piffle, et al -- almost always intended to convey a mentality at some remove from the coarse materiality of existence. They tend to establish a certain hierarchical distance between the speaker and his subject or the speaker and the average listener. Connotatively, then, a kerfuffle is a fuss or commotion that doesn't really matter -- or shouldn't really matter to people who know the word kerfuffle. In other words, it's not something you would ever really write seriously about -- if you actually belonged in the company of those who, for centuries, have used the word as an oral and dismissive interjection.

Our bet? William F. Buckley and George Will knew this word long before it started showing up as verbal cologne in the media. But you probably won't find much evidence of it in their writings because they use it orally to end conversations, not to begin elaborate arguments.

What's the real value of this fad word? Do we need it?  There are many excellent words which convey varying shades of meaning around the idea of a fuss or commotion: confrontation, conflict, squabble, fiasco, ado, hub-bub, fracas, riot, mess, row, set-to, crisis, skirmish, catfight, dogfight, cockfight, cause-celebre, tempest in a teapot, snafu, and no doubt many more. The only unique contribution of kerfuffle is the extent to which it evinces membership in some club consisting of those who use it because they think it fashionable.

We don't think it fashionable for chimney sweeps to wear plumed hats. Plumed hats are fine, but they don't look quite so swell dappled with sooty fingerprints.

All that remains is assigning blame -- the required American denouement. The quote referenced above blames Ari Fleischer. We're not so quick to agree. An occasional usage of any word can be arresting and effective. It's the institutionalization that grates. Our research lays the responsibility squarely at the feet of the Wall Street Journal and its online child the Opinion-Journal. See here and here for examples of their determined devotion to kerfuffle.

And see here for the smoking gun.

We rest our case. Are the rest of you embarrassed? We hope so. But you'll probably regard it as another meaningless kerfuffle.

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