Daily Archives: May 25, 2011

daft & daffy

Dear word sommelier, if my friend suggests something like, say, matching cabernet sauvignon with canned tuna, do I call him daft or daffy?

You’re so polite. I probably wouldn’t think of either of those words first, but if I had to choose one, it would be daft. To my palate, daft has fewer positive overtones; it bespeaks an insufficient grip on reality, and gives a sort of sense of a draft blowing from one ear to the other. It also has a strong British flavour. North Americans would be more likely to say crazy or insane; crazy has too much of a positive tone, however – no one says a wild and daft guy, for instance – and even insane can have a sort of admiring tone, whereas daft is more likely to be dismissive and, at the very least, not edgy or admirable. (For much more on crazy versus insane, see sesquiotic.wordpress.com/2010/03/08/crazy-insane/.)

Daffy, for its part, is just too, well, silly. Daffy Duck names a cartoon character prone to fits of “woo-woo”; daffy is also the name of a ski jump move (a sort of flying front-and-back split). And it sounds like taffy. You may also get an image of someone cavorting in daffodils. It’s possibly loveable and at the very least deliberately amusing. None of which seems appropriate for cabernet sauvignon with canned tuna. Eiswein with pancakes, perhaps, but there’s a difference between, well, cute and disgusting.

It’s ironic, actually, that daffy is the word with more of a silly flavour. Silly actually has more in common with daft in their histories. Both have undergone considerable pejoration. Silly started off as a word meaning “blessed” (compare German selig) and shifted through “innocent” to “inane”. Daft started off as a word meaning “meek” and “mild” and passed through “innocent” to “irrational” and thence to the present sense. It may have had a nudge from the apparently etymologically unrelated word daff, which means “simpleton” or “fool”. Daff, for its part, took on a lighter tone with the addition of the y suffix to make daffy – in other words, it underwent amelioration, the opposite of the pejoration of daft.

I can’t say with any certainty that the softer sound of daffy helped it to a softer sense, though the y, as I hinted, likely helped in that direction with its diminutive effect. The stop at the end of daft sharpens it a bit, makes it a bit more deft on the tongue, and I suspect that the single f in the spelling gives it less of a sense of a featherweight puff.

Again, though, faced with someone proffering a glass of cabernet sauvignon with canned tuna, I’d probably say something other than “You’re daft” (let alone “You’re daffy”). If I were really trying to be nice, I might say “No tuna for me, thanks,” or, more frankly, “Um. I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” but otherwise I would probably use something rather spicier and more full-bodied. I mean the word, not the wine. (For the wine, I suppose I’d lean towards a chardonnay or a riesling, depending on presentation. Or perhaps a grüner veltliner.)