A. tells me she wants to be a character in my blog. I didn’t think I had characters in my blog, just people I hide behind initials, but I like to make people happy when I can. So here’s a scene, complete with characters.
I was at the pub recently on singers night, and during the break A. and C. and I were standing around talking. As nearly as I can reconstruct the conversation, C. asked A. (apropos of I have no idea what; possibly nothing), “Are you spiffing?”
A. looked, I think, surprised but said yes, she was spiffing.
An interruption here: Since I’m turning people into characters, I can abandon my limited point of view and say that A. didn’t just look surprised, she was surprised. She was also amused and ready to go along with a joke.
C. turned to me and asked if I was also spiffing.
And here we get another interruption (what would this blog be without interruptions?), because we’ve got to consider the word spiffing. It made me think I’d fallen into a 1920s English novel. I can’t remember hearing anyone say the word before, ever, so when I started to write this scene I pulled out the small collection of dictionaries that made it across the Atlantic with me or that I’ve bought since I moved here. (Before I retired, I worked as an editor, so it made sense to have more than one dictionary. I miss the ones I left behind.)
My American dictionary doesn’t include any variation on spiffing, and I was ready to declare the word a Britishism, but then I tried my two British dictionaries and they didn’t have it either. None of them are particularly good dictionaries, mind you, but still, that says something about the word, doesn’t it? The only places I found it were: 1, In NTC’s Dictionary of British Slang, which gave me spiffed out (dressed up; polished up nicely), spiffing (excellent), and spiffy (clean and tidy; excellent), but it didn’t say anything about their origin. And 2, in British English A to Zed (what could be more British than a zed?), which gave me spif(f)licate (to knock the hell out of; to destroy). I took that for a word origin, although I still don’t see how you get from there to excellent etc.
Then I went online. The Online Etymology Dictionary says: “1853, of uncertain origin, probably related to spiff ‘well-dressed man.’ Uncertain relationship to spiff (n.) ‘percentage allowed by drapers to their young men when they effect sale of old fashioned or undesirable stock’ (1859), or to spiflicate ‘confound, overcome completely,’ a cant word from 1749 that was ‘common in the 19th century’ [OED], preserved in American English and yielded slang spiflicated ‘drunk,’ first recorded in that sense 1902.”
Preserved in American English? Excuse me, but the only time we’d use the word in the U.S. (and again, remember, I’m omniscient for the duration of this post) is when we want to sound faintly ridiculous. And even then, we’d only use it in one sentence, which we could only say in one of three contexts. It goes as follows: “We’ve got to spiff this place up before
- your parents
- the landlord, or
- the police
Or, okay, I’ll contradict myself: We might say something was pretty spiffy. But again, only if we wanted that slight tang of absurdity.
Spiffing, though? Never.
As a point of information, when an online search engine offered to translate spiffy into any of the world’s many languages, I couldn’t resist taking it up on the offer. I chose Spanish first and then French, because I actually speak those.
Almost. To be completely honest, I only speak French if you have some imagination and a flexible definition of the word speak, and even if my Spanish is workable it’s a long way from perfect, but for the purposes of one word that should be close enough. I’d stand a fighting chance of comparing the translation to reality. Or at least to a dictionary.
The search engine translated spiffy as spiffy. In both languages.
Thank you, oh great googlemaster. That was tremendously helpful, but it slowed our scene down, so let’s go back to our conversation. You remember our conversation? A. and C. and me in the pub on singers night?
C. turned to me and asked if I was spiffing. My mind went into that overdrive thing minds sometimes do when they’re asked a question they can’t process. The word spiffing, it said to itself, and to me since I was eavesdropping helplessly, cannot exist outside of 1920s fiction set among aristocratic twits who lounge around holding tennis rackets and drinking martinis. It can therefore only be used by or about people who are English, aristocratic twits, and born around 1900. You are none of these things, therefore you cannot be spiffing.
My mind didn’t stop to notice that C. isn’t any of those things and that A. is only one of them, English, but minds are like that under pressure. Or mine is. It focuses very narrowly and is very, very strange.
Without consulting me (and since we’ve wandered again, I’ll remind you that the question was “Are you spiffing?”), my mouth said, “No, I’m American.”
Which was as true as it was irrelevant.
That pretty well took care of the break. We’d eaten our sandwiches and had our conversation and those of us who’d taken cheese sandwiches had spread the grated cheese that hadn’t made it to our mouths in a nice even pattern on the carpet. That happens every week. We spif(f)licate [knock hell out of] the sandwiches and the next week (or presumably, day) the carpet’s clean again. I have no idea how they get it up. Or why they think carpet’s a good idea.
They could, in theory, slice the cheese instead of grating it, but it would be un-British.