Increasingly, the buzzword of choice these days is "stuff," the apparent legacy of professional athletes who call upon it during postgame television interviews ("We did a lot of stuff out there tonight") to describe their winning moves. More exact talk requires a somewhat larger cerebral effort.
Knowing my dislike for vague words, my 6-year-old namesake and grandson who is in kindergarten and who boasts that his vocabulary includes "symmetrical," "attributes," and "complicated," baits me with "stuff," the most recent addition to his lexicon.
"What did you do at school today, Carl?" I ask. "Stuff," comes the reply. He waits for my reaction. "And what else did you do?" "Stuff." Our conversation dies.
According to my best reference, a 1984 Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary with a drop of epoxy glue on the cover (or is it polyurethane spilled while a table was being refinished?), "stuff" was first uttered in the 15th century. It has origins in Middle English from the Old French word "estoffer," meaning to equip or stock (as in stock the shelves.)
Five centuries later, it has grown in inexactness until it means everything. And nothing. There is not a more imprecise word which, perhaps, is why it is rapidly gaining currency among those for whom thinking is an annoyance; expectantly, that doesn't include my grandson who, his mother assures me, uses it just to tick me off.
Another reference book states that "stuff" can be used to describe any activity, baggage, bullets fired from a gun, textiles suitable for clothing, manufactured materials, literary or artistic goods, ideas of little value, trash, unspecified matter, food and drugs taken into the body, miscellaneous matter, and the spin put on a baseball.
Roget of thesaurus fame says "stuff" is synonymous with atoms, molecules, earth, air, fire and water, and nature, for only a few examples.
To be sure, the word is fascinating. But how to make some sense of its current popularity, especially in the media and among celebrities? Yet another reference--an ancient set of the Encyclopedia International--tells how the Lord kept the builders of the Tower of Babel from stacking bricks high enough to reach heaven by saddling them with many different languages so they couldn't understand one another.
Need He have gone to such extremes? One new word would have halted the operation as quickly as switching speech. Imagine the frustration on the ziggurat when the foreman instructs his artisans to "bring some more stuff over here and put it with that other stuff five cubits from the top." Does he want mortar, his lunchbox, or the architect's drawings delivered? (Currently, "stuff" can mean all three.)
Noah Webster, the first great American wordsmith, tried to prove the accuracy of the Bible's account of the Tower of Babelby showing that the words God gave Adam in the Garden of Eden had survived in modern language. Was "stuff" among them? We don't know, but etymologists today laugh at his efforts.
Sometime after 1970 when, according to Webster's successors, the basketball phrase "stuff shot" originated, the word began to wobble wildly in its meanings. So we are stuck with "stuff," an etymological smoke and mirror. My worry is that it will spread from kindergartens and postgame television interviews to critical areas. Like operating rooms.
Imagine a surgeon, brow beaded with sweat, poking deep inside the innards of a seriously ill patient, calling out: "Nurse, quickly now, hand me the stuff."
Know what I'm saying?
Vol. 15, Issue 30, Page 21Published in Print: April 17, 1996, as 'Stuff'