Lexical Investigations: Stuff

stuffAs a noun and a verb, the word stuff has had many lives, dating all the way back to the 1300s. The sense of wool and cloth is chiefly British. In the nineteenth century, a junior barrister was called a “stuff gownsman,” because his robes were made of wool, unlike a barrister appointed to the Queen’s Council, who was called a “silk gownsman,” and whose promotion was called “taking silk.” Writings from this era often refer simply to “stuffs” and “silks,” and around the turn of the century, the British newspaper Pall Mall Gazette ran a legal column called “Silk and Stuff.”

If you’re traveling in England today, you can say you’re stuffed when your appetite is fully sated, though be aware of other, less savory senses of this term. In British English, the verb “to stuff” can be a vulgar way of saying to have sex, and “get stuffed” is a very rude expletive.

Over time stuff has evolved into many idiomatic expressions, such as “to know one’s stuff,” “stuffy,” and “kid stuff.” The American phrase “stuffing the ballot-box” first appeared in the 1850s and gained traction during the 1856 presidential election that brought James Buchanan into office. This election, which focused on slavery and the future of the Union, was especially fraught for its day.

In the 21st century, stuff is also commonly used to refer to things that one owns regretfully, but cannot part with, as in the third quotation below.

Popular References:

The Story of Stuff Project

Relevant Quotations:

“On the election night I heard them say that they had stuffed the ballot-boxes.”
–Erastus W. Everson, testimony, Congressional edition, Volume 1531, United States Congress (1872)

“The gowns worn by the Queen’s Counsel are also official in appearance and of a different shape to the ordinary Barrister’s gown, as well as being silk instead of stuff.”
The Barrister, Vol 2 (1896)

“Your stuff does not own the home; either control your belongings, or they will control you.”
–Janet Morris Grimes and Deanna (FRW) Radaj, The Parent’s Guide to Uncluttering Your Home: How to Organize What You Need and Recycle What You Don’t (2010)

“There was a young man from Madras, Who was stuffing a maid in the grass.”
—Rudy A. Swale, The Giant Book of Dirty Limericks: Over 1,000 Raunchy Rhymes (2010)

Read our previous post about the word paragon.
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