“You will never make your mark as a writer”, wrote William Zinsser, “unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive.”
Making my mark is not what concerns me here, but I do identify strongly with the latter part of Mr Zinsser’s observation. Though I never studied semantics formally, the subject is embedded in my lifelong fascination with words and writing. How could it not be?
Sometimes I speak a word I don’t use often, and I become curious about its semantic space. So it was when I told a friend that I was chuffed about something. I knew that chuffed meant glad, pleased, delighted — but, I wondered, how pleased? More pleased than pleased? And what oblique connections and abandoned offshoots had the word left in its historical wake?
Into the OED I delved, poring over the word’s growing constellation of senses and derivations. And then I saw this:
After I stopped laughing, I realised that chuffed belongs to the class of words that can be their own antonyms, words known variously as auto-antonyms, autantonyms, self-antonyms, contranyms, contronyms, contradictanyms, antagonyms, enantiodromes, Janus words, and amphibolous words. There are lists of them here, here, and here.
In an article about the word literally, Jesse Sheidlower noted that auto-antonyms attract criticism for their potential to confuse, and that usage writers usually select one as right and the other as wrong. But even the most authoritative expert cannot obliterate a usage. I prefer, like Ryan North, to celebrate these linguistic peculiarities:
[From the wonderful Dinosaur Comics, 2 Nov. 2007]
To me, chuffed predominantly means very pleased and it feels British and informal. This is borne out by the citations in the British National Corpus: 79 out of 81 carry this sense, and most seem like casual usages. The other two are the preterite form of the verb chuff, an onomatopoeic word that means “work with or make a regular sharp puffing sound”.
The boys were quite chuffed they had a girl in their team. (The Scotsman)
no-one is more chuffed about Bob Mould’s renaissance than I (NME)
An opening in a small pipe near the end of the funnel chuffed steam in bursts. (William James, The Other Side of Heaven)
He […] chuffed his way around the back right like a horse that was due for the knackers yard. (Leeds United e-mail list)
The instances of chuffed in the corpus are frequently and variously qualified: pretty chuffed, rather chuffed, well chuffed, highly chuffed, ever so chuffed, dead chuffed, really chuffed, more than a little chuffed, chuffed to bits, chuffed to death, not too chuffed, etc. Chuffed meaning displeased does not appear, which made me wonder about its geographical spread. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard it in the wild. Robert Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, added some detail:
In standard southern BrE it is now mostly used, somewhat slangily, to mean ‘delighted, very pleased’ . . . . In some other varieties of English in the UK the word sometimes has the opposite sense, ‘displeased, disgruntled’ . . . . The two senses seems to reflect separate uses of dialectal chuff (adj.) listed in Joseph Wright’s Eng. Dialect Dict., (a) = proud, conceited; pleased, elated (various northern and Midlands counties, but not recorded in southern ones); (b) = ill-tempered, surly, cross (Lancs., Lincs., Berks., Kent, Devon, Cornwall, etc.). The channel by which the dominant (‘delighted’) sense entered standard English cannot be ascertained with any certainty.
Across the Atlantic, the Corpus of Contemporary American English has 19 results for chuffed, seven meaning very pleased and 12 with the sense made a puffing sound — often from machinery or an animal:
Your dad’s not going to be chuffed if you fall and break your head. (Elizabeth George, With No One as Witness)
He felt absurdly chuffed at this praise from a modern. (Brenda W. Clough, May Be Some Time)
With a gentle oomph, the train chuffed into motion (Brian Booker, Train Delayed Due to Horrible, Horrible Accident)
The teapot chuffed faintly. (Tad Williams, Monsieur Vergalant’s canard)
The galloping slowed and the horse chuffed indignantly — why are we stopping? (Jonathan Carroll, The Life of My Crime)
Based on this modest survey we can infer that the slang sense of chuffed meaning very pleased is proportionately much more common in BrE than it is in AmE, and that the auto-antonymic sense displeased is rare except in regions of Britain. If you’re travelling through the UK, keep an ear out for it.
The line with which I began this post came from William Zinsser’s exceptional book On Writing Well. I’ll close the loop by telling you how chuffed I am that Mr Zinsser has begun a new weekly series at The American Scholar about writing, the arts, and popular culture. The first entry, Simple Geometry, shows how artful the plain style of writing can be, and in its five short paragraphs and closing line it is a mini-masterclass in good writing.
Update (Sept. 2011): Writing about the different meanings and disputed origins of chuffed, Philip Howard in Verbatim says: “Oxford lexicographers confirm that the expression was originally military, but are silent about its precise derivation”.