In the very early days of this blog, I tended to do very short entries. Lately — in part because I’m contemplating putting out a Not One-Off Britishisms book — I’ve been revisiting and expanding these posts. And thus, “kerfuffle.”
The word, meaning “Disorder, flurry, agitation,” started as the Scottish “cafuffle” or “curfuffle,” which appeared as early as 1813. Three years later, this line appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary: “Troth, and my lord maun be turned feel outright, an he puts himsel into sic a curfuffle for ony thing ye could bring him, Edie.” The OED cites a 1953 line from a London magazine: “The word cafuffle is still in general use in her part of Scotland..as a noun meaning a state of confusion.”
But by that time, the “k” spelling had already taken root. The OED quotes a 1946 book by the New Zealand novelist Frank Sargeson: “I bet it ended up in a good old kafuffle.” But Google Books turns up a self-conscious use a year earlier from Both Are My Cousins, by Ronald Fangen, a Norwegian novelist. (Dermot McKay’s translation of which seems to have come out in 1945, but it’s not definite.) It’s a line of dialogue followed by an intriguing parenthetical comment: “’I’m in a bit of a kerfuffle.’ (There was the word!)”
British use of “kerfuffle” rose steadily from the 1950s till about 2000. At that point, the word took off in the U.K. and went from U.S. outlier to buzzword.
The New York Times offers a helpful gauge of U.S. use. The word showed up in the paper a handful of times in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in British contexts, and in a wholly American one for the first time in 1995, when columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that a tasteless monologue at a presidential event threw “the capital into a kerfuffle.” Then it appeared seven additional times in the ‘90s, including two more by the much-read Dowd, who clearly fancied the word and clearly helped to popularize it.
And popular it is. “Kerfuffle” was used twenty-four times in the Times in 2021, which suggests that it not only deserves a “fully arrived” designation, but probably deserves a rest.