Great Stuff!

Stuff” is a delicious layer cake of ironies. We use both its ancient (to completely fill a cavity) and modern (the substance of something/anything) meanings so commonly that you can hardly utter two sentences in a row without using one of them. Wonderful twins they are, and they have a separated-at-birth sibling as well…dramatic “stop“.

Their ancient Greek mother was a modest country girl – “styppe” – meaning coarse flax/tow/oakum, the stuff (!) everyone used to caulk (stop up) the planks of their boats to make them watertight (can you hear “stop”, as one of SNL’s “wild and crazy guys” might say it?). Latin took her on as “stuppe“, and then the common folk (the Latin Vulgate) raised her up from kitchen maid to cook by giving her the additional skills of a verb. Now you could say “stuppare” and mean something was “getting stopped up, stuffed“.  Seems a modest and obvious evolution, but this sort of caste-breaking upward mobility is really (as they say in Physics) an “event horizon”.  No going back.  Door irretrievably cracked to potential explosion of opportunity. As is often with caste-busting, the explosion goes in slo-mo at first.

Old High German needed to caulk its boats too, and took on Stuppe as “stopfon” – to stop up or plug. Say it fast and you’ll hear stuffin’, and stop is still its first syllable. Simmering up the centuries into French and Middle English as both the noun “caulk/stuffing”, and the verb “to plug, stuff”, her first venture into new flavor came when the Frankish military (revealing the violent nature of those Dark Ages) recruited Stopfon to mean “stuffing/padding” under chain mail” (estoffe). As times calmed down, stuffing/padding shifted to makers of furniture and soon other trades involving any kind of plug or stuffing adopted her. Middle English continued her upward mobility. It carved out Stop from the “plug, stop flow” idea and sent it on its modern way as “to bring to a halt“. Then it shortened her name from stopfon and estoffe to stuff, but kept expanding her kitchen so that by the 1570’s her menu had exploded to the extreme that “stuffing” meant “matter of an unspecified kind“. Anything whatsoever! Unlimited stuff-ness!

The workaday servant has vaulted all the way to domestic Goddess.

The yummy irony of it all is that, of course, we all need to stuff up the planks of our little personalities so they float serenely watertight in the rapids of social intercourse, and again of course, on the other extreme we get completely impacted and immobilized with Stuff…things and ideas alike. And even more exquisite that this stem cell of a word that can signify anything, anytime, anywhere has as its root meaning impenetrable stoppage.

Great Stuff!


Filed under Etymological Illuminations

2 responses to “Great Stuff!

  1. Lucia

    Good stuff, Jane! Everyone: check out The Story of Stuff:

    We also have the book in stock. Come buy it now for 20% off!

  2. Pingback: Dude, this one’s gonna blow your mind! | The Other Day at Portrait…

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