Dictionary.com

Lexical Investigations: Stuff

stuffAs a noun and a verb, the word stuff has had many lives, dating all the way back to the 1300s. The sense of wool and cloth is chiefly British. In the nineteenth century, a junior barrister was called a “stuff gownsman,” because his robes were made of wool, unlike a barrister appointed to the Queen’s Council, who was called a “silk gownsman,” and whose promotion was called “taking silk.” Writings from this era often refer simply to “stuffs” and “silks,” and around the turn of the century, the British newspaper Pall Mall Gazette ran a legal column called “Silk and Stuff.”

If you’re traveling in England today, you can say you’re stuffed when your appetite is fully sated, though be aware of other, less savory senses of this term. In British English, the verb “to stuff” can be a vulgar way of saying to have sex, and “get stuffed” is a very rude expletive.

Over time stuff has evolved into many idiomatic expressions, such as “to know one’s stuff,” “stuffy,” and “kid stuff.” The American phrase “stuffing the ballot-box” first appeared in the 1850s and gained traction during the 1856 presidential election that brought James Buchanan into office. This election, which focused on slavery and the future of the Union, was especially fraught for its day.

In the 21st century, stuff is also commonly used to refer to things that one owns regretfully, but cannot part with, as in the third quotation below.

Popular References:

The Story of Stuff Project

Relevant Quotations:

“On the election night I heard them say that they had stuffed the ballot-boxes.”
–Erastus W. Everson, testimony, Congressional edition, Volume 1531, United States Congress (1872)

“The gowns worn by the Queen’s Counsel are also official in appearance and of a different shape to the ordinary Barrister’s gown, as well as being silk instead of stuff.”
The Barrister, Vol 2 (1896)

“Your stuff does not own the home; either control your belongings, or they will control you.”
–Janet Morris Grimes and Deanna (FRW) Radaj, The Parent’s Guide to Uncluttering Your Home: How to Organize What You Need and Recycle What You Don’t (2010)

“There was a young man from Madras, Who was stuffing a maid in the grass.”
—Rudy A. Swale, The Giant Book of Dirty Limericks: Over 1,000 Raunchy Rhymes (2010)

Read our previous post about the word paragon.

23 Comments

  1. nasir -  October 15, 2013 - 6:35 am

    All the stuff is very beautiful and interesting. I do not know before this stuff is used in these meanings.

    Reply
  2. Steve -  August 12, 2013 - 11:38 am

    How about Tom Wolfe’s use of the word in ‘The Right Stuff?’

    Reply
  3. Lyle -  August 12, 2013 - 7:22 am

    The word stuff is found in the King James Bible

    Reply
  4. DbaiG -  August 12, 2013 - 3:42 am

    Amazing that though we so frequently use the word ‘stuff’ but we fail to reflect on the many meanings that it holds. Another word that we started using very commonly at our school as a substitute for ‘stuff’ was ‘thingie’ Yes I know it sounds not only crude but very childish but thankfully we’ve outgrown that stage and are back to using appropriate English.

    Reply
  5. awesomness -  August 10, 2013 - 7:59 am

    stuff

    Reply
  6. toni -  August 9, 2013 - 9:17 pm

    I love this stuff! thanks!

    Reply
  7. Tom Thumb -  August 9, 2013 - 8:40 pm

    “How come your stuff is (crap) and my (crap) is stuff?” Carlin.

    Reply
  8. Bruhaha -  August 9, 2013 - 4:03 am

    Stuffed if I know.

    Reply
  9. Alistair -  August 8, 2013 - 9:28 pm

    As someone from Britain, I wouldn’t consider “get stuffed” to be a “very rude expletive”. To me, it’s a diluted replacement for swearing. And “to stuff” as a way of saying to have sex? Nope, never heard that one at all.

    Reply
  10. Steve -  August 8, 2013 - 4:31 pm

    Wool was a major source of wealth in England. A seat known as the Woolsack was used by the Lord Speaker and Lord Chancellor as a sign of the pre-eminence of the wool trade. I wonder if the verb The Stuff originated from the filling of the sacks.

    Reply
  11. Jessica -  August 8, 2013 - 8:43 am

    Then there is the culinary term, stuffing a chicken, stuffed vine leaves, stuffed peppers etc where it means “to fill” – just like when you eat too much, perhaps this is where the sexual connotation derives from?

    Reply
  12. Yankiemog -  August 8, 2013 - 1:24 am

    I think it would be a good idea to teach the world the difference between the use of ‘who’ and the use of ‘that’. There are regular references to people being that which is wrong. People are always who. It is up to dictionary to run an article on this.

    Reply
  13. JJRousseau -  August 7, 2013 - 3:22 pm

    If someone says that they want to cut off my stuff, what should I fear most in today’s environment: Censorship, castration or mishandling of my pension fund. Oui?

    Reply
  14. BARBARA -  August 7, 2013 - 7:45 am

    How did “stuffy” when referring to an uptight, uninteresting person evolve?

    Reply
  15. Snigdha -  August 7, 2013 - 6:51 am

    Very informative. Now I can say ‘Silks and Stuff’ when someone asks whats up with me!

    Reply
  16. Eric -  August 7, 2013 - 5:44 am

    ……and then there’s the shirt……

    Reply
  17. a.gopalakrishnan -  August 7, 2013 - 1:41 am

    reaiiy know things well meaning time how to use all comes well thankyou for

    deictionary .com

    Reply
  18. oddislag -  August 6, 2013 - 5:32 pm

    Wow that’s stuffed.

    Reply
  19. Alicia -  August 6, 2013 - 3:32 pm

    George Carlin had a way with using and defining the word Stuff.

    Reply
  20. Donna Poems -  August 6, 2013 - 1:46 pm

    Stuff I think will be one of the most used words on this planet. It is so often used for so many reasons. Its almost used to replace etc. This, that and other stuff for example.

    Reply
  21. TransAtlantic -  August 6, 2013 - 9:17 am

    I’m sorry to have to say that you’re a little out there. Here in Britain it’s unusual for any one to use stuff in the way you describe, “to stuff” would be used in pretty much the same way as in the States. However, your erroneous definition of the verb does aid your explanation of “get stuffed”, in which you are loosely correct. It’s not a very rude expletive, though. Rather it is used in place of a very rude expletive. A sort of euphemism would be the best description.

    Reply
  22. Wayne R -  August 6, 2013 - 5:36 am

    Am I the only one that thinks it is weird for the lexical posts to not provide links to the Dictionary.com pages of words investigated? I wanted to go straight to the page for ‘stuff’ because I found this etymology very interesting, but there is no link.

    Reply

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