English English


Philip Howard
This originally appeared in Vol. VII, No. 1

I am chuffed as bollocks about a piece I wrote earlier this year in what Americans quaintly describe as The London Times. Depending upon your understanding of the idiom, this means that I am either pleased or displeased, gruntled or disgruntled. The article was about Janus words and expressions that mean the opposite of what they seem to; for example: I hate to gossip, but . . .; To cut a long story short . . .; the union regrets any inconvenience caused to the public; the Government is confident that most of our athletes will wish to boycott the Moscow Games; NO EXIT (on the London Underground); and chuffed.

The article argued that chuffed was an exemplary Janus or reversible word, because there was reputable authority of good writers who understood it to mean gruntled, and other equally good writers who understood it to mean disgruntled. An avalanche of mail deluged upon us to give The Times the real news about chuffed. Unfortunately no two letters agreed. One persuasive wordsmith declared that chuffed never meant anything except extremely browned off before the war in the British Army; and that since the war it has done a semantic somersault to mean `pleased.' For connoisseurs of class nuances it was observed that while the stiff-upper-lipped officer corps was merely chuffed at reversals of fortune, the troops were invariably dead chuffed.

On the other hand equally old and persuasive retired soldiers declared that chuffed had never meant anything other than `gratified,' and that the displeased variant was pure civilian ignorance. One gave the intensifiers chuffed as fuck and chuffed as bollocks. Old soldiers from the Indian Army wrote claiming that the word was derived from Hindi, like the many words from jungle to bungalow that have come into English from the Anglo-Indian connexion. Old soldiers from the Indian Army have a propensity to do this about any word of disputed etymology.

The Oxford lexicographers confirm that the expression was originally military, but are silent about its precise derivation. Eric Partridge, always very well-informed about military slang, said that chuff had been used in the British Army since about 1930 to mean `food,' on the analogy of chow. Partridge gave as a second meaning of chuff, with pretty precision, `stimulation of male member by lumbar thrust in coition.' Whatever did the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Mr. Holyoake, mean, in that case, when he used to sit on one's chuff to mean `to sit back and do nothing'?

Partridge noted the Janus meanings of chuffed. He declared that if one needed to distinguish them, one said chuffed to fuck or chuffed to arseholes or chuffed pink or bo-chuffed to mean `gruntled,' and dead chuffed to mean `disgruntled.'

Squadron Leader John Bloomfield of the RAF in Suffolk sent us an official Ministry of Defence memorandum about chuffed--RAF version 1960s:

The Pongos have missed the nuances of the word and its proper use.

dead chuffed, very pleased

highly chuffed, quite pleased

chuffed, pleased

dis-chuffed, disenchanted

chokka (or chockered), displeased

right chokka, very displeased

(Right and dead can be transposed.)

Hence I'm chuffed by your occasional articles. I'd be

dead chuffed if you referred to the above, but right chokka if you can't be bothered to acknowledge this note.

P.S. Choked off is another matter entirely.

I doubt whether we are ever going to arrive at an explanation of chuffed that is going to satisfy everyone. In any case the Janus word is distinctly old-fashioned in British English.

Meanwhile I am fussing about the piece of American slang laid back that has recently become all the rage in British journalism. I know that it means, roughly, `cool, easy-going, relaxed, and generally admirable.' It is the derivation that puzzles me. Is it just slumped back in one's character as in one's chair? Or is it, more interestingly, a piece of Californian psychobabble?