Kerfuffle is not a commonly used word in American English. The OED‘s first record of it is from a 1946 short story from Frank Sargeson. They suppose it comes from the older Scots word, curfuffle, meaning “disorder, flurry, agitation,” which in turn originated from two Scottish Gaelic words meaning wrong/awkward and to become disheveled.
I’m not entirely sure why I know the meaning of the word, unless I picked it up contextually. It means a disturbance or dispute, usually caused by a misunderstanding or inappropriate response in a social setting. More formal definitions are certainly available – I especially like the nuance of Urban Dictionary’s.
I do not recall hearing kerfuffle used very often until I got involved in social media and began interacting with others in this sphere. The first time I remember hearing it – at least within the past year – is from Joseph Jaffe on his Jaffe Juice podcast. This post is probably not the original topic about which I heard him use the word, but it is one of many examples on his blog. I remember thinking that this was perhaps a more common term in South Africa.
But then I kept hearing it over and over:
- Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson (most recently)
- Mother Jones on creationism
- Jeff Jarvis on the Presidential campaign
- Michelle Malkin on fashion
- The New York Times on art (or not art)
So where and how did the word become so popular in the online space? I wish I could find (an easy) way to track the use and popularity of the word online. Who was the initial trendsetter in the social media community?
Aside from this question, what I find most interesting about the word is when it’s used over the many possible synonyms:
Had the term been in popular use in 2004, would we have called the Janet Jackson wardrobe “malfunction” a wardrobe “kerfuffle”? And will we eventually call the Middle East conflict, the Mideast kerfuffle?