91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What a load of piffle

There are many words in our language that are just plain fun. But what exactly do they mean? University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan did a deep dive this week into colorful, sassy words. 

Let’s start with the ever-popular term, bumbershoot. What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of a bumbershoot?  

It means an umbrella.

"It comes from a blend,” says Curzan. “So we’ve got two words getting smooshed together. The first, bumber, is probably just a play on umbra, as in umbrella, and you just put the B on for fun. And then the shoot is from parachute.”

If you hadn’t heard of a bumbershoot, you have likely heard of canoodle – the cheeky term for getting cozy with someone.

“Historically what canoodle has meant is to make out, or to kiss, to caress, or give endearments,” explains Curzan. “So people will talk about ‘ugh those two were canoodling in public.’”

But canoodle could possibly be getting a definition makeover. During another one of Curzan’s informal polls, she found that many people thought canoodle meant chatting, cozying up with, or putting their heads together, but with nothing sexual going on.

This fits closer with a historical definition of winning someone over by flattery, which is more talk than kissing. 

Then there is canoodle’s best friend, cavort. Cavort goes back to horses.

“It used to mean a light leap by a horse,” explains Curzan. “And I think we still talk about horses cavorting, and we can now talk about people cavorting.”

Let’s end with piffle.

“Piffle means nonsense or empty talk. It comes into English as college slang in the end of the 19th century,” says Curzan.

Although piffle seems to have lost all of its steam, Curzan says we really should try to bring it back. But hopefully you don’t think That’s What They Say is all piffle.

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.