'Chuffed' reader sends Warren on search for meaning

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, September 12, 2001

Something I wrote a month ago got one of my coffee companions "quite chuffed."


Well, British and Australian readers may chuckle at this, but I had never encountered the word before. I thought I had a pretty good idea what it meant, though – and I was dismayed.

I was also quite wrong.

It all began with a column I wrote on Mexican human rights advocate Abel Barrera. Cochrane volunteer Leslie Davies, whose work in Mexico relates closely to his, wrote to me after Abel saw the column.

"Abel was quite chuffed about your article," she said.

I was crushed. I try so hard to get things right. What could I have possibly said to so upset the distinguished anthropologist?

At least, I assumed the word "chuffed" meant something like "upset" or "miffed."

I mean, look at the sounds in the word. The "ch" suggests the idea of being "cheesed off," and the letters "uff" clearly smack of "huff" (as "in a huff"), right?

When I considered the larger context of Leslie’s statement, however, that line of thinking troubled me. After all, her comments otherwise were complimentary and not accusatory.

So, I went online to one of my favourite word-sleuthing tools, www.dictionary.com. It related "chuffed" to "a noisy puffing or explosive sound, such as one made by a locomotive."

What was I to think? Was Abel so displeased with my column that he was huffing and puffing like a steam engine? Not very likely, considering what a peaceable fellow he is.

That’s when I turned to an extra service, called Ask Jeeves, offered at the top of the dictionary.com definition page. Ask Jeeves accesses examples of how a word is actually used in current media. I like this service very much.

When I typed in "chuffed," I found dozens of examples, but not one of them had anything to do with trains. The examples most definitely did, however, provide me precisely the data I needed for understanding what Leslie meant.

(I should note here that I have a distinct distrust for most dictionaries at the best of times, because they often lag far behind current word usage. A dictionary, after all, is only a mirror of how a word is actually used, and since language is constantly changing, by the time a dictionary is in print, it is already out of date.)

What, then, did I find in the examples that was so enlightening? One writer said he was "not altogether chuffed" when something unpleasant happened.

Others wrote of being "pretty chuffed," "really chuffed," "dead chuffed," "flattered and chuffed," "honoured and chuffed," and even "chuffed to monkeys" when something good happened.

From context, I concluded the word obviously means something like "pleased" or "delighted," and not, as I first thought, "miffed."

I wrote back to Leslie in Mexico to see if that’s what she meant.

"Yup," she replied, "'chuffed' means 'delighted'! It's an Aussie expression (via Gran Bretaña, of course) and is much used 'down under.'"

Well, I thought the case was closed until two other things happened.

I was speaking with an Australian chap living in Cochrane and asked him about the word. He told me he had never encountered it till he visited northern England recently, and at first he too thought it meant "displeased." The embarrassment of misunderstandings eventually set him straight.

Then, of course, I had to peek at the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED for short), just to confirm my own findings. And guess what? According to the OED, for some speakers in 1960 England, "chuffed" did, indeed, mean "pleased." But for others of the same year, it meant just the opposite, "displeased."

Oh well, that’s all part of the fascination and frustration of language.

By the way, speaking of "chuffed," my wife, Mary Anna, was chuffed to pieces over the surprise 60th birthday column I wrote about her a couple of weeks ago. Thanks for your many responses. You made me quite chuffed, too – and I mean that in the most positive sense of the word.

© 2001 Warren Harbeck

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