Plainly chuffed

“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:

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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:

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[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”.

22 Responses to Plainly chuffed

  1. I always think of being chuffed as an emotion peculiar to Wodehouse, Frank Richards and Anthony Buckeridge. Sometimes I suspect I feel a little chuffed myself, but I don’t like to presume.

  2. Claudia says:

    Superb post. I learned much! And a huge thanks for the link to Simple Geometry.

  3. Stan says:

    PFW: Your writing voice and bright photos suggest the same, but I’m in even less of a position to presume, so I won’t.

    Claudia: Thank you, and you’re very welcome. I’m already looking forward to Zinsser’s next post, and I’m curious about American Scholar‘s description of the series as an “anti-blog“.

  4. Fern says:

    I’ve never heard it used as meaning displeased and didn’t know that it could be. It’s obviously a very rare usage.

    • Kenneth CB Wilkie says:

      KCBW. When I was in the RAF 1945-48 in the Far East chuffed was in continual use and invariably meant fed up or displeased. Much later I was deeply upset when after having helped someone with what he was writing he said he was chuffed. I then discovered the other usage for the first time.

  5. Stan says:

    Fern: It seems rare to me too, but it may be common enough in some regional UK dialects. If I find out more (or find time to investigate it more), I’ll update this post. And in the meantime, to avoid confusion, I’ll continue with the very pleased sense!

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    I have used the word, Stan, but to me it is an extremely male word, I would usually apply it to post-middle-aged men in my writing and vocally I have applied it to both my father (he was so chuffed at my daughter’s wedding) and my elderly uncles (they looked rather chuffed at old Eddie’s funeral) though in the latter case – not being aware of the antonym – the meaning of what I was saying would have lost its irony.
    Somehow I can’t see it being applied to a woman, can you?
    And thanks for the delightful post, I was not aware of the antonym at all!
    XO
    WWW

  7. I dimly remember a conversation I had as a kid, about the word “original”. I’d written, I suppose, an adaptation/parody/whatever of some famous song/poem/whatever, and was told that my adaptation sounded original. No, I thought, it’s the original version that’s original, not the one I made up.

    @wisewebwoman’s impression that “chuffed” has masculine associations is interesting, if only in that shows how different our impressions can be. I certainly don’t agree with it. I’d guess that women use it slightly more than men, but that’s extrapolating from a small sample space. Of course, I’m Australian.

    Also, I’d put more emphasis on the pleased-with-yourself connotations of “chuffed”, rather than just pleased-in-general. It’s pride in the good sense, as one might feel after receiving a compliment or winning a competition, provided that compliments and prizes have not lost their novelty.

  8. Stan says:

    WWW: That’s an interesting view, and it relates to Pretty Far West’s particular association of chuffed with three male authors. I don’t encounter the word often enough to connect it strongly with either gender, though on balance it does seem more the preserve of males. (Maybe because men are more likely to be pleased with themselves!) But I also went out with an English woman who spoke the word now and then with a pinch of self-conscious irony.

    The key example of its usage in my experience was in a musical context many years ago: Neil Hannon (a songwriter from Northern Ireland) told an Irish TV interviewer that he was “rightly chuffed” that anyone would buy his records. It was one of many charming remarks he made, and my friend and I were big fans of his music so we watched the interview several times. I think that’s where my occasional use of chuffed began.

    Dragon: Your story reminds me that so much seemed impossibly original in childhood, yet there was great pleasure in adapting existing material — drawing from photos, getting ideas from an activity book, etc. Like grown-ups, children are often at their most original when they’re not trying to be; there’s no pressure to Create Newness.

    I’m glad you’ve weighed in on the question of chuffed‘s usage by gender, especially since you offer a contrary position. As you say, you’re extrapolating from a small sample size, but it’s quite possible that the word has a significantly different demographic user-base than in the U.S. or in my corner of Europe. And thanks for your insight into the word’s unconceited “pleased-with-yourself connotations”. I think you’re right.

  9. Sean Jeating says:

    Fascinating, Stan. Thank you.
    Your post let me (once again) remember a very old draft that is patiently waiting to get posted.
    I am not sure how to categorize the very word, but its different meanings do fascinate me galore. Perhaps you’ll find it interesting, too:

    ravish
    1. entzücken; hinreißen
    2. vergewaltigen
    to seize and take away
    to overcome with emotion (as joy and delight)
    Main Entry: rav·ish
    Etymology: Middle English ravisshen, from Anglo-French raviss-, stem of ravir, from Vulgar Latin *rapire, alteration of Latin rapere to seize, rob — more at rapid
    Date: 14th century
    1 a : to seize and take away by violence b : to overcome with emotion (as joy or delight) ed by the scenic beauty> c : rape
    2 : plunder, rob
    — rav·ish·er
    — rav·ish·ment

    – – –

    Imagine a sentence such as: It did not ravish her when the soldiers ravished her.

  10. Fran says:

    I use this word a lot to mean ‘pleased’. Teenagers don’t seem to know it or use it, though, so they look at me a bit off.

  11. I did not know that chuffed meant displeased. I had heard it used as an adjective (eg chuffing hell).

    I like it when words have subsiduary or alternative meanings. My favourite is pure when used to describe dog shit as an additive in the tanning industry.

  12. Stan says:

    Sean: A word you may be already familiar with, but which bears mentioning here, is polysemy [OED; M-W]. Hungarian linguist Stephen Ullman described the phenomenon as “the pivot of semantic analysis”.

    The different meanings of ravish always strike me when I read the word. The usual senses it carries in my experience are ravishing (adj) to mean very attractive, and ravish (v) to mean rape or plunder. You won’t mind, I think, if I suggest a poem: Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn; its first line, “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness”, is explored in some detail here.

    Fran: Thank you for sharing that! When I read your second line I momentarily thought you had written: “Teachers don’t seem to know it or use it…”, which conjured up a scene of awkwardness in the staffroom. Maybe teenagers know what it means (even just by guessing from context) but find it unacceptably Wodehousian for their generation.

    Jams: I’ll consider chuffed meaning displeased to be very uncommon until I hear otherwise. So far, it has been new to everyone! Chuffing as a euphemism for fucking is a fairly recent usage, I think. I’ve enquired about its origin, and will report back if I learn more.

  13. Claudia says:

    Sean’s comment sent me to the French ravir which has the same double meaning than in English:transporter de joie et enlever de force. I couldn’t find a translation for Keats poem. In this case, for “Thou still unravish’ed bride of quietness”, I would say: Femme encore virginale, empreinte de paix… May Keats forgive me!

  14. Stan says:

    That is interesting, Claudia. The two languages have such close connections. There’s a little more about the origins of ravish here; see also ravage.

    [P.S. Teacher’s hat: “the same double meaning than as…”]

  15. Claudia says:

    Very chuffed by your correction. A mistake I must have made many times as I was totally sure that I was right. I will try to remember about as in comparisons. Thanks!

  16. […] is a common feature in English: literally could be considered an auto-antonym or contranym. I’ve written about these before. ‘Lift him out,’ said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes in […]

  17. […] “is where the Academy is in its element”. Even if it hadn’t confused portmanteau words with auto-antonyms, its point would be just as senseless: neither construction is a “[reason] why English is being […]

  18. […] or earnest? Without further information, we can only guess. The word is polysemous, chameleonic, contranymic, having begun positively, lurched negatively, and then swung back towards widespread positive […]

  19. Rosemary B says:

    Born in Yorkshire in the 1940s I have lived in Northumberland most of my adult life. In both counties “chuffed” is an everyday word. Among my friends it is widely used in the sense of “mildly pleased” ~ usually about a compliment or achievement. “I was chuffed that ‘x’ liked my photograph” or “I was so chuffed that I passed that exam first time”. I never heard it used with any negative meaning, until recently, as a substitute for swear words, as in “That’s no chuffing use”.

    • Stan says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience of the word, Rosemary. Use of the word as a swear-substitute dates to the 1940s, according to Chambers Slang Dictionary, which says the verb chuff is “mainly used in the north of England”. But it seems the minced oaths chuff (n.) and chuffing (adj.) – as in your example – appeared much more recently. I don’t encounter any of these very often; when I do, it’s usually in colloquial BrE.

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