“Faff”–Moving Up from Outlier

Hard to believe, but it’s been more than ten years since I looked at “faff.” The verb means dither or fuss, and is usually followed by about. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation, from an 1874 volume called Yorkshire Oddities, suggests that it originated as a regionalism: “T’ clock~maker‥fizzled an’ faff’d aboot her, but nivver did her a farthing’s worth o’ good.” There’s also a noun form, as in a 1960 OED citation: “Dithering about in a perpetual faff.”

Back in 2012, I labeled the word an “Outlier,” as I could find it only in one episode of Parks and Recreation and in some pieces by a New York Times sports blogger.

I was inspired to look at the word anew because Nancy Friedman sent me a tweet (remember those?) from Rick Wilson (@The RickWilson) that begins: “A bit of faffing about on the anti-anti-Trump right at the moment).”

I checked around and and found a reasonable amount of “faffing” including:

  • From a 2018 Times soccer article: “But he faffed around and did not shoot”
  • A 2019 article about skiing in China: “After much Google translating and faffing about, we got a ticket with ridiculously short skis and poles for about 130 renminbi, or less than $19.”
  • A tweet today from someone in Atlanta referring to “generic whine-on-Twitter faff.”

I have therefore upgraded “faff” to On the Radar.

And while I have your attention, I’ll note that the blog is up to 2,997,000 and some page views. That means it will hit three million within the next week. I’d like to set up some kind of doohickey where the three millionth person gets regaled with song and virtual fireworks, but that’s a bit beyond my capacity. I’ll have to settle for alerting you when I hit the milestone.

As always, thanks for reading and commenting.

10 thoughts on ““Faff”–Moving Up from Outlier

  1. Another useful word with a similar meaning is ‘mither’. The distionaries report that is Northern English in origin, but my mother used it a lot and she was from Warwickshire in the Midlands.

    1. It’s said all the time in Birmingham but not very often to the South of there, since I’ve moved from North Warwickshire, virtually Birmingham, to a more Southern part of Warwickshire I’ve heard it said far less – perhaps by the time you get to Northampton the ‘mither/moither’ speakers disappear.

  2. I am familiar with both mither and moither, both suggesting some irritation with someone who is faffing about.

  3. The also the noun, as in “it’s a faff” or “it’s a bit of a faff”, meaning it’s a lot of trouble and effort, often to achieve something not really worth the bother.

  4. I learnt on the Phrazle game that Americans say Keep your chin up! where traditionally we’d say Keep your pecker up!

    I can’t recall hearing ‘faff’ in real life till I moved to London in 1976. Principally from my supervisor, who grew up in a leafy suburb of Birmingham; and my future wife (more noun than verb) who grew up in an arc between Kent and Guildford. I suspect that, back then, use of ‘faff’ was restricted to a mainly middle-class minority.

  5. Not just Yorkshire: it was in common use in the North-East of England in my childhood (1960s).
    Mike Harding, folk-singer cum raconteur from South Yorkshire, championed ‘fossicking’, which I always took to be a hybrid of faffing and rummaging.

  6. Faffing in my experience is essentially a group skiing phenomenon. It involves adjusting boots, fiddling around with gloves and inserting ones hands into the loops on one’s ski poles, and generally wasting time at the top of a perfectly good piste.

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