I wrote that “the King was pretty chuffed” when the parliament men challenged his sovereignty (link). Over at DeLong (link), a commentator said that I got the meaning wrong (the commentator blamed DeLong, but the error, if any, was mine). “You should be aware,” he wrote, “[that] ‘chuffed’ is a Royal Navy expression meaning, roughly, proud.”
Hm, I didn’t know that. Is he right?
As judge of my own case (and after a bit of Googling), I declare: advantage, commentator--he is more right than wrong. But as with so many things in life, it is complicated. A review of online sources suggest that most support him, at least in general. Answers.com gives “chuffed Brit. proud, satisfied” (link) . WordWeb Online gives: “Adjective: chuffed. Usage: Brit 1. Very pleased ‘I'm chuffed to have won’” (link). “Pleased” may not be quite the same as “proud,” but they surely overlap, and the Wordweb example surely entails them both. In the same vein, see the online English-to-American dictionary (link); the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (link); MSN (link); Merriam Webster (link) and others.
So the commentator looks like a clear winner. But then the fun begins. For example, Allwords.com gives “ chuffed adj (Brit)1. colloq Very pleased.” (link). So far, familiar territory. But Allwords adds: Etymology: 19c: from dialect chuff plump or swollen with pride”
Two issues here. One, the synonyms. “proud” is one thing, “swollen with pride” is not quite the same. And plump. Proud and plump? One thinks of Mr. Toad and his new automobile; one detects a note of subtle mockery.
There is the more general problem of “chuffed” and “chuff.” One commentator declares that “chuffed” is “not to be confused with ‘chuff,’” (link), but I doubt that most speakers are so fastidious. And definitions of “chuff,” in general are not fastidious of all. It may be “An onamatopeia for the noise an old steam engine makes;” or rather a whole bunch of nasty stuff you may or may not care to know (link) (“eeuw, I think the king just chuffed").
And there is the matter of case. One may be chuffed adjectivally, but when "Switch engines chuffed impatiently in busy rail yards" (link), they were an intransitive verb.
And finally, one sharply differing view. A.word.a.day gives “pleased; satisfied.” link But then it also gives “displeased; annoyed.” And (this is the interesting part) it offers two different etymologies: “From English dialect chuff (pleased, puffed, swollen with pride).” For “displeased” it offers “From chuff (boor, churl), Middle English chuffe.” The lexicographer adds:
I call them fence-sitters. They sit on the fences, ready to say one thing or its opposite, depending on which side they appear. I'm not talking about politicians. These are words, known by many names: autoantonym, antagonym, contranym, enantiodromic, amphibolous, Janus word, and so on.
To cleave is to cling or to split? Ravel is to tangle or to untangle? When you sanction a project, do you approve or disapprove of it?
When a proposal is tabled, is it being brought forward for discussion or being laid aside? In this case, it depends on which side of the
So: most of the time, “proud,” just like the commentator said. But with perhaps a touch of subtle mockery, and perhaps an outright autoantonym. I admit I am chuffed to buggery at having found the occasion for this little display of pedantry, but I suspect the king just might have been chuffed to buggery himself.
Fn: Here’s an interesting commentary thread: (link)