Meanings: “Stuff”

November 12, 2014

“Here’s how I define ‘stuff’,” writes personal productivity coach David Allen: “anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step” (Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity, 2001, p 17).  That’s an interesting definition: ‘stuff’ is not everything I own. A book I’ve read and enjoyed is no longer making a diffuse claim on me and so is no longer ‘stuff’. A book I’ve taken out of the library but haven’t yet started to read is ‘stuff’ especially if I think I should read it. A phone call I haven’t returned is ‘stuff.’ My unfinished bathroom is ‘stuff.’ To get properly organized, you have to wade through your stuff in some constructive way, turning stuff into accomplishments.

Allen’s definition isn’t the dictionary’s, which defines “stuff” as “matter, material, articles, or activities of a specified or indeterminate kind that are being referred to, indicated, or implied.” That’s broader, quite broad, actually. Allen’s definition gets at the emotional overlay. When we refer to something as “stuff” we mean to refer to the things that are nagging at us in some way, the things we haven’t dealt with. It gets at what we mean when we say ‘I can’t go have fun with you, I have too much stuff to do.’

Reading Allen (who I’m reading because he was praised by Atul Gawande), I found myself wondering where the word came from. I realized there are both a noun form (whatever we are talking about) and a verb form (putting something inside of something else). But what was the origin? Etymology.com provides this:

stuff (n.)   early 14c., “quilted material worn under chain mail,” from Old French estoffe “quilted material, furniture, provisions” (Modern French étoffe), from estoffer “to equip or stock,” which according to French sources is from Old High German stopfon “to plug, stuff,” or from a related Frankish word (see stop (v.)), but OED has “strong objections” to this.

Sense extended to material for working with in various trades (c.1400), then “matter of an unspecified kind” (1570s). Meaning “narcotic, dope, drug” is attested from 1929. To know (one’s) stuff “have a grasp on a subject” is recorded from 1927.

Quilted material under chain mail: of course! That image links the noun and the verb forms. You put stuff (whatever!) under chain mail, and that act is an act of stuffing. Hence we stuff a turkey or we have too much stuff in our closets.

However we consider “stuff,” there does seem to be more of it these days. The NGram makes the late 1940s and ‘50s look good doesn’t it? Maybe they were a simpler time.

Ngram stuff

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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