Monday, April 21, 2008

The small stuff

Ever think of the word, Stuff? I titled an earlier Word Nerd entry “Silly Stuff,” which got me to thinking about this humble workhorse of a word you’re likely to hear or use yourself a dozen times on any given day.

We use “stuff” all the time to refer to anything and everything. Stuff is a catchall term for things that happen to us, as in, “I can’t believe the stuff that’s happening to me!” It can refer to the things that crowd our closets or the things that crowd our mind. It’s a marvelous little word that has protean power to morph (change shape) into multiple practical usages.

This one is not Greek or Latin. It was brought across the waters from France to England in the 11th century by William of Normandy (that's him above) and his followers in the guise of estoffer. The Anglo-Norman French verb estoffer meant to “cram” or, well, “stuff.” It’s noun variant, estoffe, meant “equipment.” Today we use the descendant of these terms in the same way. But we also use it to signify not just equipment, but any of the things we might stuff into, say, our minds as students, or a duffle bag for a trip to the laundry. By the way, a duffel bag is so called for the cloth such bags used to be traded in Duffel, Belgium. This leads me to another word nerd trail I’ll take up next time: everyday words we use that derive from place names.


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