The Great Scheduling 'Kerfuffle' of 2011

Journalists settle on a rather silly word for a rather silly story

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The cliché: As journalists covered the heck out of a silly process story on a lazy August afternoon, they tried out a lot of different adjectives for it. How to describe the tiff between President Obama and Speaker Boehner over scheduling Obama's upcoming speech to a joint session of Congress? When Obama asked to speak at the same time as the Republican presidential debate, was it a "snafu"? When Boehner refused his request and asked him to consider the next day during an NFL game, was it a "spat"? Finally, Ruth Marcus at The Washington Post seemed to stumble upon a consensus-building choice while simultaneously shaking her head at the whole affair (though cover it she did.) "The world will little note nor long remember the Great Scheduling Kerfuffle," she wrote in a blog post this morning. Kerfuffle: a silly word for a silly news item. Later today, Rick Klein at ABC News wrote, "A kerfuffle over timing of a presidential speech has marred dreams of bipartisan comity in the coming weeks on Capitol Hill." And Jeff Poor at The Daily Caller wrote, "On Thursday’s 'Good Morning America' on ABC, [James] Carville joined his former Clinton administration colleague George Stephanopoulos [and] said that there were really no winners in the he said-he said kerfuffle between the White House and Speaker of the House John Boehner." (The words were Poor's, not Carville's.)

Where it come's from: Marcus seems to have led the charge applying the word to this particular non-news item. The word itself is of Scottish origins, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, which says it is an "alteration of carfuffle, from Scots car- (probably from Scottish Gaelic cearr wrong, awkward) + fuffle to become disheveled." Awkward, indeed.

Why it's catching on: The story came during a slow enough news cycle that even 24 hours later it remains the top story on The New York Times politics page. It seems that all those who make the news (and many of those who write it) have headed out early for Labor Day weekend. (Not so with your humble provider of cliches...) So, journalists in need of something to cover took what they could get, while still acknowledging that it was kind of a silly process story that very few people outside the Beltway would care about. Thus, kerfuffle, with its awkward, silly pronunciation and evocation of all things frivolous, seemed the perfect word.

Why else? The word evokes something stodgily British. Just look at Merriam Webster's sample sentence that accompanies the definition: "Predictably, the royal scandal caused quite a kerfuffle on Fleet Street." Obama's scheduling misstep soon became a story about procedure, decorum and manners. Pundits on the left wondered where respect for the presidential office had gone. Those on the right pointed out that Obama's office had given an unprecedented small amount of time before going public with their chosen date and time for the speech.  All in all, it was a spat over precedence and tradition, so of course one wants to dust off a stodgy British word for the occasion.

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