Oh boy, did Toronto have a big kerfuffle today. A flurry, a fluttering, kaboom, kerplop, kabibble, kerflop… anything other than a careful card shuffle. Between 1 and 2 in the afternoon: Mayor Rob Ford dropped out of the mayoralty race. His nephew withdrew from his candidacy for councillor. Rob’s brother Doug – after difficulties with the paperwork – registered to run for mayor. Rob registered to run for councillor in his old ward, where Michael had just dropped out. And Michael registered to run for school trustee. My Twitter feed was scrolling like the electricity meter on the side of a house that was hosting a party in March for fourth-year university students.
Ah, kerfuffle. Such a good word. It sounds like a cat that has accidentally slipped on a stack of papers while padding across a desk and has fallen in the shuffling fluttering folio foliage to the floor. What you know for sure is that something has abruptly gone off the tidy norm and much ruffling has followed. Even the shape of the f’s in this word gives a sense of floppy things flapping and flipping.
So where did this word come from? Yes, yes, imitative, I know. But there are many ways to imitate the kind of set-to, to-do, ruckus, hurly-burly, hoo-hah, or whatnot that this word signifies. So why kerfuffle? Well, we know that the ker- is common enough; we see it on kerplop, kerflop, kerslosh, kerthump, and so many others, and its related ka- on kaboom, kabang, kapow, and so on. It’s the backswing on the action of the verb, the backdraft before the explosion of fire. But this word did not begin its life as a ker- word.
No, kerfuffle is a modified version of curfuffle or carfuffle, matched by analogy to all those other ker- words. Curfuffle comes from Scots English; as a noun, it dates from the early 1800s, but there is a verb curfuffle that is seen as early as the late 1500s. It means (per the Oxford English Dictionary) “to put into a state of disorder; to ruffle,” and it is born (with maybe a little Gaelic help) from simple fuffle, a verb, which means, again from Oxford, “To throw into disorder; to jerk about; to hustle, treat with contumely.”
Which makes the word kerfuffle even more perfect for the disorder, hustling, contumely, and jerking about that took control of the Toronto news stream for some time today.