Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Word Nerd Sez: F is for ...


I have to admit, I only discovered this word a couple of weeks ago. I was reading an article in Newsweek on the government response to the financial crisis that has been rocking the markets over the past two months. The actual quote was this:

"Fellow citizens," Bush fumfered Friday, "we can solve this crisis—and we will." Unfortunately, his reassurances seem about as calming as the scene from "Airplane" in which the flight attendant urges everyone to remain calm while all hell breaks loose.
I was immediately intrigued. I mean, Newsweek is pretty mainstream, with a fairly clear style; it's not like it's a journal written for an academic audience. And yet they used a word I didn't know ... and I'm not used to finding words I don't know in a mainstream magazine, especially not ones only six letters long. I immediately had to stop reading and go to the dictionary. And this is what I found:

Fumfer: Yiddish word meaning to "mumble", most often used to mean to be evasive; can also mean to putter aimlessly or to waste time.
Wow. What a great word. Sometimes people really do mumble with the intention of being unclear, and now I know the exact word for it. Not only is it a more exact word, it's fun to say. In general, I like the feeling of many Yiddish words. Dreck, glitch, klutz, putz, schlep, schmaltz, schmooze, shtick, spiel, tchotchke, tuckus—the hard, clipped sounds of these words seem to give them extra emphasis. And it's always fun to season your vocabulary with words that have origins other than the more common French, Latin, and German.

We often borrow words from other languages that give us more exactitude than English; if you're a word nerd like me, you'd probably enjoy Adam Jacot de Boinod's The Meaning of Tingo, which is an exploration of these kinds of words that we haven't yet borrowed. If you want to know all those Eskimo words for snow, or the dozens of Somali words that describe camels, this is a fun read. Now, I've fumfered long enough in this post, so I should get back to work.


  1. Yiddish words are the best. They're all onomatopoeia and back of the throat. Let me add kvetch (to complain) to your list, but farKAKta (really screwed up or crappy) is my favorite.

  2. Fumfer! I love it and will now introduce it into every appropriate conversation. I will make this word happen in Chicago :)

  3. When I read that Newsweek article awhile back, I made a note to look up "fumfered" later. I had never seen it in print or heard it used before. Today I google, and get your wonderful post. What an obscure word. I was surprised, also, to see it used in Newsweek.