The word has its champions. “Wonderfully expressive,” says one Web site devoted to language. “A wonderful word,” says another. But these champions are wrong. “Kerfuffle,” a currently fashionable word from Scotland once so uncommon that into the 60s there was no agreement on how to spell it, looks and sounds like one of those big, harmless animals on Sesame Street, not like what it actually signifies — a commotion.
Unlike words that come into style because they pinpoint something, “kerfuffle” calls attention to itself instead of its meaning. It’s a writer’s word, not a reader’s, much more useful for making a poem than an argument. And these days there’s no avoiding it.
Chicago Tribune editorial, June 4: “But not everyone’s convinced. Take the kerfuffle over an acclaimed children’s book published last year that began with a passage about a rattlesnake that bit a dog named Roy on a body part guaranteed to draw giggles from 10-year-olds. (Hint: scrotum.)”
Tribune‘s Amy Dickinson, April 23: “Ten-year-olds are still learning how to communicate with each other. It can be quite confusing, and is a process of trial and error. This sort of kerfuffle is how they learn.”
Tribune editorial, March 23: “Imagine the kerfuffle in Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s inner sanctum when Wednesday’s Peoria Journal Star landed like a depth charge.”
Tribune editorial, February 23: “Strangely, amid all this kerfuffle, the Republican presidential hopeful most likely to say something explosive by accident, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, did not get in any trouble.”
Tribune‘s Clarence Page, February 7: “On a scale of 0 to 10, 0 being a minor annoyance and 10 being a complete outrage, the kerfuffle over Sen. Joseph Biden’s use of ‘clean’ and ‘articulate’ to describe Senate colleague and fellow presidential hopeful Barack Obama ranks about a 2 — although with many black Americans it is a very strong 2.”
Tribune‘s Eric Zorn, January 9: “The famous kerfuffle when then-candidate Bill Clinton said that he’d tried marijuana but didn’t inhale began on March 29, 1992 — nearly 15 months later in the election cycle than this story has hit the national media.”
And this is from just one paper, the Tribune, this year. A Google search of “Imagine the kerfuffle” turned up virtually a thousand citations. The horror!
Colleague Jerome Ludwig, who brought the matter to my attention, wonders: “Maybe it’s just one of those words that’s overused at the moment; like frisson was a while back.” Give a president a hammer and every problem looks like a nail. Give the press a new word and every passing spat becomes an excuse for it, or every shiver of emotion.