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June 30th, 2004

Efforting? / kerfuffle

by Barbara Wallraff

Dane Karvois, of Boston, writes: “I have a colleague who frequently uses the word ‘efforting.’ For example, ‘I am efforting that issue right now.’ Has he broken some rule?”

Dear Dane: Yes, and it’s a rule lots of people care about. Namely, you shouldn’t make a verb out of a word that everyone else thinks of as a noun and only a noun. By adding the “-ing,” your colleague has actually gone a step further and turned his new verb “effort” into a participle. Participles -- like, say, “trying” and “working” -- are derived from verbs: “I try,” “I am trying,” “I work,” “I am working.”

It’s true that “try” and “work” can also be nouns: “Nice try!” “Good work!” In fact, many words can be both verbs and nouns: “I often attempt,” “an attempt,” “I endeavor,” “an endeavor.” But each of the verbs I’ve named already means pretty much what your colleague must mean by “I am efforting” -- as in, “I am trying to resolve that issue,” “I am working on that,” “I am attempting to resolve that matter” or (anyone want to get really fancy?) “I am endeavoring to address that concern.”

There’s no point in inventing “efforting” when so many familiar verbs are available to do its job. Make an effort -- will you? -- to persuade your colleague that “I am efforting” is foolish English.

Frederick Bartlett, of Hamilton, N.J., writes: “A woman from New Zealand and Australia (born in the former, lived in the latter) introduced my wife and me to the word ‘kerfluffle’ about 10 years ago. We were much taken with the word and have been using it ever since. Now so is everyone else, only most people say ‘kerfuffle.’

“How did this happen? British and British Commonwealth speakers have said ‘kerfuffle’ for donkey’s years. Why is it suddenly popular among speakers of American?”

Dear Frederick: You’re right that the popularity of “kerfuffle,” which means a “flap” or “uproar,” is at an all-time high in the United States, judging by how often it appears in the Nexis database of newspaper and newswire copy. In the first half of this year, “kerfuffle” turned up in U.S. Nexis sources twice as often as it did in the first half of last year. In previous years usage was consistently lower. (Your version, “kerfluffle,” appears in print too, but only rarely.)

What raised “kerfuffle’s” profile? I had a suspicion, and to find out whether I was right, I went straight to the source: Arthur A. Levine, the American editor of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Yes, indeed, Levine told me, “kerfuffle” made its first Potter appearance in the fifth book of the series, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which was published in the United States last summer. A sentence on Page 25 reads, “In all the kerfuffle, nobody seemed to have noticed Harry, which suited him perfectly.” But of course, that’s fiction. In the real world, hasn’t everybody noticed Harry? And many of us seem to have noticed the language in which his life is described. I can’t prove it, but I’ll bet Harry has something to do with the current American “kerfuffle.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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