Last week, in the comments section under the post devoted to Anoraks and Spods, we had a brief discussion about the word chuffed, how it is used, and what it means.
The simple answer is it means happy or pleased, as in “I just got my exam results! I’m chuffed to bits!” or, as Adele said when she was nominated for the Mercury Awards, “I’m incredibly chuffed.”
For some reason, you can also be so chuffed, it takes you to somewhere random. So you’ll hear “chuffed to bits,” “chuffed to ribbons,” and, less often “chuffed to beans,” or even “chuffed to little mint balls.”
But finding out why this word means what it does has unearthed a few nasty secrets and mucky thoughts, so do forgive me if we wander into areas that you’re in any way uncomfortable with. It is not our intention to offend.
Chuff is a term with a multitude of meanings. It was used in 16th century archaic slang to describe a boorish, miserable person, or a self-satisfied blowhard with big ruddy jowls, but there are other, newer uses of the word, and they’re ruder.
This is largely because the word has been adopted, particularly in the North of England as a nice, safe alternative for all sorts of other, more explicit words. So “chuffing nora!” is an expletive to be used when there are children present and the f-word will not do. Or the h-word that often follows the f-word.
It’s a bit like the blank square in Scrabble, if Scrabble was a game in which swear words were written on individual tiles and then arranged on a board, and you were forced to play it in the presence of a prissy aunt.
(nb: please don’t attempt to market such a game, or you’ll be hearing from my lawyers.)
So, here’s the full litany of filth, beginning with the mildest example:
To chuff is sometimes used as another word for breaking wind. Possibly because it’s a nice onomatopoeic word that seems to encapsulate the windiness of the experience for children, and partly because we are once again attempting not to say another word, namely fart.
But it doesn’t end there, as a noun, the chuff describes the part of the anatomy which is responsible for the wind breaking in the first place.
This has given rise to a few choice expressions, such as “stick it up your chuff,” or “that guy was driving right up my chuff,” although my favorite is the one used to describe someone who is very mean with their money (or, in British slang, tight): “he’s tighter than a gnat’s chuff.”
Incidentally, my all-time favorite description of a stingy person, which I first heard applied to Rod Stewart, is “he’s tighter than two coats of paint.” I mention this simply because you don’t get to use it every day, and it’s an eternal delight.
However, chuff doesn’t always mean the back bottom. It can also be used to describe the front, the one that only the female half of the population has. It’s less common, but once you start replacing rude words with chuff, there’s really no line you can’t cross.
So it’s tempting to conclude that the origin of chuffed is something to do with the glow of pleasure that comes with sexual contact. But it’s more likely to be a left-over construct from that archaic description of a fat-faced person. If you’re chuffed, you’re smug and satiated, like a tubby rich man who’s just finished an enormous and delightful meal and can’t cram a single extra morsel in.
And if you’re chuffing chuffed like a chuffing chuffer, you’re either extraordiarily pleased and trying not to cause offense, or pretending to be Thomas the Tank Engine.
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