Friday, October 10, 2008

Apple #345: Stuff

The past couple of days, I've caught myself using the word "stuff" way too often. In one e-mail that was about two sentences long, I used it twice. Then I heard myself say it in a conversation two times in about five minutes.

I don't mean "stuff" as a verb, but as a noun. For example, "I've got stuff I have to get done," and "Where am I going to put all that stuff?" and also as a sort of throwaway add-on at the end of a sentence: ". . . so she was being all mean, saying all kinds of insults, and stuff."

I heard myself use this word enough times, I thought, but what the heck is stuff?

  • The first definition in most dictionaries reads something along these lines: "matter of an indeterminate kind." Thanks.
  • According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a very early definition for the noun is "quilted material worn under chain mail." This same dictionary, as well as several others, says the word is derived from an Old French word, estoffe, which means "quilted material."

The quilted material (stuff) used under chain mail was made into a padded shirt like this one, called a gambeson. Crusaders realized these shirts provided extra protection after they saw the Arab soldiers they fought wearing them.
(You can buy a gambeson like this one from Medieval Fantasies Co. for only $95! That stuff's not cheap!)

  • The Online Etymology Dictionary goes further to say that estoffe probably came from an Old High German word stopfon, which means "to plug or stuff."
  • In other words, the noun is the stuff -- er, material -- with which you stuff something. The stuffing with which the pillow is stuffed.

Stuff used to stuff a quilt
(Photo from Racheal Miles' blog Miles Away in France)

  • From there, we get all sorts of other uses for the noun. Interestingly, sometimes the stuff is good, and sometimes it's bad.

  • Stuff -- furniture, domestic goods, often in a somewhat dismissive sense. This actually is another meaning of the word estoffe, which also means furniture. I wonder if furniture and stuffing go together because the French were thinking of overstuffed chairs? Which, by the way, has always confused me. Why are those chairs "overstuffed," anyway? Why not just "stuffed"?

An overstuffed chair and ottoman (footstool). See, it doesn't look like it's stuffed too full so that the stuffing is coming out of it or anything, right? It just looks stuffed. Still, it's called overstuffed.
(Available from All Barstools for $529.)

  • Stuff -- British, dated. A particular kind of woolen fabric, often worsted. It was also sort of coarse, and usually the people who wore clothes made of stuff were lower class, common folks. I suspect the phrase simple stuff came from this usage.
  • Stuff -- medicine, potion, or also slang for narcotics. Something you drink or swallow or otherwise stuff into your body for its special effect.
  • Stuff -- slang, British, for worthless trash, junk, twaddle. As in, "Stuff and nonsense!"

“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”
(Illustration by Sir John Tenniel, sourced from ibiblio)

  • Stuffy -- unventilated air, or the air is full of stuff. Or a person could be stuffy, too, meaning snooty or full of attitude.
  • Stuffed shirt -- pompous person. Originally, someone who wore padded shirts and passed himself off as being larger or more muscular than he actually was. Later, in brief, "full of stuff."

  • Stuffing -- edible, seasoned mixture stuffed into, or cooked in the body cavity of a fowl.

Turkey, stuffed with stuffing
(Photo from Dressing Recipes, which has lots of tips & recipes about turkey stuffing)

  • Stuff -- a gooey mess of melted wax and turpentine, used to cover the bottom of ships. Its purpose was partly to protect the wood, but it also helped the hull move more smoothly through the water. The mixture changed over the years, from white stuff, to black stuff, to brown stuff. I'm not sure if there's any connection here with the concept of stuffing something into something else.
  • Stuff -- slang, in baseball, the English or spin a pitcher puts on the ball. In sports in general, some demonstration of excellence, as in, "He really showed his stuff." I suspect this is derived from the next entry.

The Right Stuff

  • "The right stuff," or "made of sterner stuff" -- not physical stuff, but one's internal character, and usually meant in a flattering sense. I think of this as a shorthand way of saying, "the innards with which you are made are of a more lasting and durable nature than the usual, flopsy-mopsy quilted material with which others are stuffed."
  • To know one's stuff -- well-versed in one's area of expertise. I find this phrase kind of ironic, having thought so much about the bad stuff. It sounds to me now that, by calling someone's specialized subject stuff, you're comparing it to something that's not worth very much.
  • The stuff of life (or of whatever realm you happen to be discussing at the time) -- the critically important innards; the heart or the meat of the thing.

So, a lot of stuff can be stuff. Now I don't feel so bad for using that word as much as I have. Because it's really useful for a lot of stuff.

Online Etymology Dictionary, stuff
Webster's 1913 Dictionary, stuff
Compact Oxford English Dictionary, stuff
Webster's New World College Dictionary, stuff
American Heritage Dictionary, stuff
Ultralingua, stuff
Brian Lavery, Part III: Underwater Protection,
The Arming and Fitting of English Ships of War, 1600-1815, pages 56-58.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you're a spammer, there's no point posting a comment. It will automatically get filtered out or deleted. Comments from real people, however, are always very welcome!