What’s All the Fuss?

Describing an uproar with fun words

Journalists love words, and many will go out of their way to find “special” ways of using unusual words. Sometimes the words are obscure—using “palimpsest” in a movie review, for example—but more often the words are perfectly understandable, just rarely used in everyday speech. When was the last time you heard someone in casual conversation describe a discussion as “acrimonious”?

Two words have been appearing with increasing frequency recently to describe virtually the same thing: “brouhaha” and “kerfuffle.” They’re both onomatopoetic, sounding more like what they describe than words like “uproar,” “fuss,” or “disagreement.” (The alternate spelling of “onomatopoeic” is used here because it’s so much more, um, poetic.)

Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines “brouhaha” as “a noisy stir or wrangle; hubbub; uproar; commotion,” and “kerfuffle” as “disorder; uproar; confusion.” Surprisingly, “kerfuffle” doesn’t appear in the 1999 edition of Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary or in the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language in any of its alternate spellings, including kafuffle, cafuffle, cufuffle, curfuffle, and gefuffle.

Somehow, an “uproar” seems less serious as a “brouhaha” or “kerfuffle.”

“Kerfuffle” is the older of the two in common usage. Chiefly British, (and more usually spelled “curfuffle” over there), the word probably comes from Scotland; the Oxford English Dictionary lists a first use in 1813. “Brouhaha,” by contrast, first appeared in 1890, attributed by the OED to Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Though other dictionaries note that “brouhaha” was used in medieval dramas as the cry of the devil—a corruption of “baruch ata adonai,” the opening phrase of many Hebrew prayers—there is no current anti-Semitic attachment.)

Until early June, “brouhaha” was used more than “kerfuffle” in newspapers, wires and blogs in the United States, a Nexis search indicates. “Kerfuffle” appeared more frequently on blogs and less in the “mainstream press,” while “brouhaha” showed up less frequently on blogs.

But then came a flurry of prominent activity surrounding “kerfuffle.” Describing a Republican Party fundraiser back-and-forth concerning Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, CNN correspondent Candy Crowley said it had been “a giant kerfuffle.” Then, on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart mocked both the phrase “giant kerfuffle” and media reaction to the incident (or non-incident).

You’d think that, after such exposure, the use of “kerfuffle” would have taken off. But no. Since that little “dust-up,” the use of “brouhaha” has accelerated, while use of “kerfuffle” has fallen.

Hmm, could it have been the mocking?

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.