No, not those F words. The other F words. I know, everyone wants to talk about those F words which are taboo in polite society, which turn heads, which raise eyebrows, which cause one to bring the hand to the mouth. F words like… fumfering. “Ye gods!” one might exclaim. “Has it come to that!” Well, yes it has come to fumfering. What can it mean?
Fumfering, from the Yiddish, means dithering, mumbling, muttering, stalling, puttering aimlessly…you get the idea. I stumbled across this word while recently reading an article about one of the presidential candidates. We won’t mention any names. This funny sounding word, fumfering, just says it – to mumble, to mutter, to putter, to murmur, to dither, to waffle, to speak like you have potatoes in your mouth. A fumferer then is someone who doesn’t speak clearly, not to be confused with fonferer, meaning someone who talks through his nose, or a double talker, a cheat.
Yiddish is spoken by the Ashkenazi Jews, related to German and written with Hebrew letters. In America, a hybrid of Yiddish and English is sometimes called “frumspeak” and can most likely be heard in New York City. So one could say that Yiddish is part of the ever developing English language.
One of my favorite F words is “flummoxed”, meaning bewildered or perplexed. It apparently originated in the English midlands or western counties as “flummock”, to “gad about in a slovenly fashion” or make untidy, confuse. Charles Dickens used the word in The Pickwick Papers, his first novel, “And my ‘pinion is, Sammy, that if your governor don’t prove an allebi, he’ll be what the Italians call reg’larly flummoxed.” It was in common use both in England and in the US by the end of the 19th century. The urban dictionary says it’s used as a transitive verb as in, “You flummoxed me.” The word probably also gave us “lummox”, a clumsy person which may have originated from “clumsy ox” or “lumbering”, or a combination of both.
Now “fiddle”, another name for violin, has spawned many spin offs – fiddle faddle, fiddle dee dee, fiddle sticks. The root word is Old English fithele, a stringed instrument, related to Old High German, fidula. Fiddle can mean many things that have to do with wasting time using your fingers, “Stop fiddling with those coins.”, which is like another F word, “futsing”, which has the same idea as fiddling or handling. Another shade of meaning could be found in the sentence, “You’re fiddling your life away.”, sometimes interchanged with “frittering.” Fiddling can mean trying to fix when the outcome is doubtful, as in, “He’s fiddling with the engine.” Or it can mean tampering with finances, “The accountant fiddled with the company’s figures.” So, these meanings make me think that in days gone by, there must have been scenes of family and friends sitting around after a day of work, plucking and strumming the strings of the lute, or violin which to some looked like wasting time when they could have been doing something more productive. Fiddle faddle means silliness. Fiddle dee dee is a comment on someone spouting nonsense, as is fiddle sticks.
It is interesting that all these F words have to do with being free or formless. They’re words that describe behavior that’s unfocused. One can imagine the fumferring grandfather stumbling around the cottage, while the younger folk fiddle on the instruments and the father fiddles with the figures of the family income to claim financial freedom while his wife tells him to stop fiddling as she cries, “fiddle dee dee!” It’s as if the fricative ffff is a perfect audial sound to express the lightness, or emptiness of our actions. Ffff is, afterall, like the sound of the wind.