It makes me sad when I hear a really interesting word, begin to adopt it into my own vocabulary and then, nearly overnight, hear it thrown about willy-nilly, having lost its distinctive meaning.
This makes me think about the first girls to wear Ugg boots. I still don’t own any because, by the time I became aware of them, they had already saturated the fashion scene and were being worn in places where they have no use, such as at formal events or in the desert Southwest. There’s a narrow window in which to enjoy something novel before it’s over- or mis-used.
We were watching a morning news program yesterday, a story about a Tacoma, Washington, boy having been sent home from school for wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey. The Seattle-based reporter ended the piece, naming the incident a “kerfuffle.” I said to my husband, “I love that word, ‘kerfuffle.’” Just then, our local news anchor said, “I love that word, ‘kerfuffle.’” The horse is out of the barn.
“Kerfuffle” isn’t a new word and, from what I understand, the British adapted the Scottish “cerfuffle” and made it theirs long ago. It’s just that we don’t hear it all that often. It’s fancy and delicate and best saved for special occasions, much like Grandmother’s white lace tablecloth.
Whereas “kerfuffle” has long referred to commotion, fuss, brouhaha or misunderstanding, it seems many are using it almost euphemistically, to trivialize more heated or violent incidents. One literary blog elaborates.
Other words describing social conflict have evolved over time.
I remember studying the word “altercation” for a vocabulary test in grade school. The definition I memorized was “a wordy quarrel.” Webster’s defines it as a “noisy argument.” News writers and broadcasters now use “altercation” to describe a fist fight, even an incident involving gunfire. They also describe a barroom brawl as a “melee,” a term that has typically referred to combat situations.
As we’ve observed here lately, there is a place for language evolution, though I’m sad to see distinctive words become watered down through overuse. Perhaps there’s also a place for Grandma’s lace tablecloth for Tuesday’s hamburgers; just don’t get ketchup on it.
I missed the Uggs boat and, clearly, my new favorite word is aboard a train that has left the station.
It’s just a simple observation. I won’t make a kerfuffle out of it.