Sometimes you just see a cute little word wandering around on the street and you pick it up and take it home. And you pet it for a little while, and then you use it in a sentence.
And then someone says “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
I have the habit of looking up any word that is new to me. But I didn’t always. And one word that just seemed so cute – and its meaning so guessable – that I picked it up without checking it for fleas was squiffy. Oh, look, doesn’t it just have that squee factor? It’s like a little mouse called Sniffy. It’s squeezable and soft. The ff takes away any clear echo of squid, and most people won’t think of spliff right away. (The hair-conscious may think of quiff.) And that squ that seems ironically so un-square can draw your attention away from the rather iffy aspect of it.
So the 24-year-old me was working away in a bookstore and I came face to face with some unforeseen and undesirable eventuality (there are many of those in the quotidian existence of a bookstore), and I said “That’s just squiffy.” And my manager, Dean Thorup, a fellow who (like at least one other I knew in the book biz) demonstrated by his existence that you could have an unspectactular education but still be quite sharp, said “That word doesn’t mean what you think it means.”
So what does it mean? Let me just say that it’s an adjective that many people will have cause to use during the recycled Saturnalia of late December. To be less coy about it: it means ‘intoxicated’.
But of course there are so many levels of intoxication. To draw a parallel, it’s an old (and not really accurate) idea that the Inuit (also called Eskimos by people who are not them) have some huge number of words for ‘snow’. The idea is that if you have a lot of exposure to something and a lot of reasons to make distinctions between different specific types of that thing, you will have a lot of words for that thing. This idea may have some basis (but do think of the number of things we encounter all the time in many varieties and still have just one or two words for), but another factor that can come into play is that things that are socially outré or taboo but nonetheless desirable tend to accumulate a lot of euphemisms and rakish synonyms.
One or the other of those factors will account for something I noticed in an Irish Gaelic phrase book: Irish has a goodly number of words for different levels of drunkenness. Well, that just plays to stereotypes, doesn’t it? But if you’re going down that road, you cannot ignore the amazing number of words we have in English for different levels of drunkenness – easily enough to make a whole year’s worth of word-a-day. And one of those words is squiffy.
So where does squiffy fall on the scale? Generally on the lighter side: what you may get from a snifter or two, just a sniff of the stuff, a couple of quick quaffs and that’s all. But you do well to check context. You surely know that some people like to downplay the level of intoxication, and others to exaggerate it. The lines between semantic categories are not even as tidy as if they had been drawn by someone who was rather more than squiffy.
Oh, and where does the word come from? It dates from the mid-1800s. The Oxford English Dictionary helpfully says “Of fanciful formation.” Go figure.