And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

Lewis Carroll added a fair few words to the English language in “Jabberwocky.” Several of them are rather imprecisely definable and do not show up in the Oxford English Dictionary. But uffish is in there.

And what, pray tell, does uffish mean? Well, what sense does it give you? I can tell you what it makes me think of first – and I hope I may get away with quoting at moderate length from Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:

The carpenter slunk away from Fred Rosewater, too, leaving a copy of The American Investigator behind. Fred went through an elaborate pantomime of ennui, demonstrated to anyone who might be watching that he was a man with absolutely nothing to read, a sleepy man, possibly hung over, and that he was likely to seize any reading matter at all, like a man in a dream.

“Uff, uff, uff,” he yawned. He stretched out his arms, gathered the paper in.

There seemed to be only one other person in the store, the girl behind the lunch counter. “Really, now—” he said to her, “who are the idiots who read this garbage, anyway?”

The girl might have responded truthfully that Fred himself read it from cover to cover every week. But, being an idiot herself, she noticed practically nothing. “Search me,” she said.

It was an unappetizing invitation.

So is uffish this sort of state of drowsy listlessness, feeling maybe a little offish? But, hmm, would that be right for a fellow pursuing a jabberwock? Mightn’t it be better to be more stand-offish?

Well, indeed, that’s what Carroll had in mind. We know this because he said so. He said the word “seemed to suggest a state of mind when the voice is gruffish, the manner roughish, and the temper huffish.” So it’s really, in his mind, a soft-sounding synonym for truculent – the uff not the head hitting a pillow but rather the sound of steam venting.

Or anyway the sound a sudden blast of air – a sudden gust of the ill wind of ill temper, perhaps. This is what the OED has: according to it, uffish is an alternate spelling of huffish, and it has a few examples to back that up. And huffish, which means “arrogant” or “insolent”, comes from huff, which traces back to gusty onomatopoeia and its metaphorical use to characterize a mofette of mood.

So that makes it ufficial: it’s how you puff when you’ve had enuff. And are feeling quite the opposite of the sanguine, somnolescent Mr. Rosewater.

One response to “uffish

  1. I always took it to be a bit like ‘humph-ish’, another possible creation from onomatopoeia, how one puffs oneself up by degree, one thought after another, until ready to fight the demon or die trying. The Little Engine That Could comes to mind, ‘I think I can’ puff ‘I think I can’ Puff ‘I think I can’ PUFF!

    One two, one two the vorpal blade went snickersnack . . .

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