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Anger management: From kerfuffles to fisticuffs

We're humans, and we don't always get along, but there are degrees of disagreement – and some colorful words to describe them, like "brouhaha."

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says the word comes from French.

"In Michael Quinion's great website, World Wide Words,  he says in French drama the devil used to say 'brouhaha.' 

And one of its synonyms is 'kerfuffle' – at least a close synonym – and this was brought to my attention when my nephew, who at that time was nine, asked his parents 'What is a kerfuffle?'"

And his parents said, 'It is a brouhaha,' at which point he asked, 'What is a brouhaha, and they said 'It's a kerfuffle.'"

Curzan says a kerfuffle or brouhaha describes an argument or disagreement, but not a serious or physical fight.

"We know that kerfuffle comes into English from Scots, and the first part of that may come from 'kar,' meaning to twist. I'm not sure about the second part; there was a verb in dialects of Scots' 'ferfuffle,' which meant to put into disorder.

The spelling with 'ker' in kerfuffle may be influenced by the wonderful words 'kerplop' or 'kerplunk,'" Curzan says. 

There are lots of other words to describe discord.

"You can have a 'ruckus,' which is a quarrel or an uproar or a disturbance," Curzan says. 

Then there's "fracas," which might involve some violence or violent arguments.

And when push really comes to shove, you might resort to "fisticuffs."

"That one comes from physical violence, as in hitting people with your fist," Curzan says. "It is a compound of fist and cuff, and we're not entirely sure where we got tht extra syllable in the middle, but it happens in other words, like handiwork, from handwork."

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.