Do you prefer to be on the floor, where the action is, or to play your fiddle on the roof, aloft, hoping not to fall with an “oof”? Do you like to swim in the flood, or, fearing being scrubbed as by a loofah and looking the fool, would you rather simply look on, aloof, and risk being seen as a loafer? What if someone offers to grease your palm – can you be enticed?
It is interesting how we conceptualize action and involvement: as something we enter into; the default state is distance, inaction. We remain aloof, or we stay aloof. And as opposed to the heat of battle, to be aloof is to be cool or cold. But we do not usually sit aloof; we normally stand aloof. I bet that the very phrase gives you an image of a person standing back, arms crossed, looking askance. Alert, to be sure – be alert, the world needs more lerts – but aloof. Does the world need more loofs? And by being a loof, do you manage to stay back and keep from being the fool?
Now, tell me: is going against the wind being aloof? In the song “Against the Wind,” by Bob Seger, you have a picture of someone constantly struggling against the current of the times, breaking rules, always moving fast. Not aloof. And yet to be aloof is to be upwind of something, even to move upwind of it. I don’t just mean figuratively – certainly upwind makes more sense than downwind as far as involvement goes – but literally: that’s where the term comes from.
And not standing upwind. Floating upwind. We may be inclined to visualize being aloof as standing aloft, high and dry, but aloof first meant “upwind” nautically. Turn aloof meant head into the wind. (Can you now hear the sails flapping as you tack across the wind, gradually making your way into it, “loof aloof aloof”?) And one reason to do so would be to steer clear of some downwind point – a shore or ship that you wish not to encounter. You don’t let the wind blow you into it; you resist the natural trend and remain aloof. You’re not loafing, but you are remaining circumspect. You don’t want things to get out of hand.
Speaking of hand, loof is a word meaning “palm of the hand”, as in creesh your loof, “grease your palm” (“give you money or flattery”). It may be related to luff, originally a type of rudder, then a ship’s weathervane; from the weathervane we get keep your luff “stay close to the wind” and spring your luff “turn into the wind”, and a luff “close to the wind” (i.e., with the bow pointed more towards the wind).
So, while we now think of someone aloof as perhaps standing apart in a drawing room, or otherwise keeping a distance, at least emotionally – wanting perhaps to be in the loop informationally, but not to be in the pool with the sharks – and so might see the position as more akin to the view from an airplane, originally it was a view from a ship. Just one that prefers to pass in the night. But either way, you can see the binoculars in aloof, that oo with the hands holding it on the side loof, offering a view from a distance. (Or is it a snorkel mask?) And the word doesn’t quite say “Halloo”; it has the cool /u/, made for shouting over a distance, but then finishes with the soft /f/, like quiet static on the radio or the sound of a wave breaking on a distant shore. And walking on that shore, feet in the soft sand as the waves lap, “loof aloof aloof,” is someone thinking, “I wonder who’s in that boat?”
Thanks to Rosemary Tanner for suggesting aloof.