The Discouraging Word today explores the brief history (three recorded occurrences) and hard-to-pin-down meaning of a word that must have been in fleeting vogue in the fourth decade of the nineteenth century. You might also want to scroll down (none of your newfangled permalinks for TDW!) to the April 21 entry “Wonky pillars, and why the OED no longer considers us polite” for an exegesis of the more current, if not exactly familiar (to Yanks), word “wonky.”

Update (Sept. 2020). The OED still hasn’t updated its entry for spoffish; I might as well copy the last part of The Discouraging Word’s post to save the clickthrough (the site is dead, so it doesn’t need the traffic) if people just want the conclusion:

Understandably, neither M-W nor American Heritage are of any help. Thus we have resorted to a(nother) Google search, which turns up a few semi-valuable items: the folks at Chambers, for example, having deemed it one of Our Favourite Words, simply repeat the OED with their “fussy, officious (archaic).” A 1913 edition of Webster’s unabridged dictionary, however, is much more useful. Consider its definition:

a. [probably from Prov. E. spoffle to be spoffish.] Earnest and active in matters of no moment; bustling. [Colloq. Eng.] Dickens.

That far better captures the delicious irony that Dickens employs in his description of Noakes and throughout Sketches more generally. The “fussy” and “officious” of the OED’s definition foreclose the meaning of the word: while we don’t think spoffish could be a compliment, Dickens surely isn’t using it as an outright insult for Noakes, as the OED would suggest. Webster’s instead captures Dickens’ nuance quite adroitly. And it should be praised for hazarding an etymology, however unsupportable it may be.

(Spoffle, by the way, is not in the OED, although some have tried to neologize the word by applying it to “the large, sausage-like expanded foam device used by sound-men to cover their microphones.” That sense — or a related one — has achieved circulation in a picking-apart of the film Urban Legend, at least. And here. The word also seems to crop up on a number of seamy sites which we shall allow you, faithful readers, to pursue on your own.)

All in all, then, we recommend that future editors of Sketches use Webster’s definition, not the OED’s. For a word that seems largely Dickens’ own, the OED should have been more attentive to its original context.


  1. Did you know that there is Slavonic Collection in Helsinki University Library?
    (I worked there few years ago. If you have some tough questions for them you can write to:
    And there are some special collections, too,
    Well, just a thought. Or two.

  2. Wow! From the Slavonic collection I got to The Finnish Historical Newspaper Library 1771 -1860 (for which the index page contains the delightful sentence “Information may contain erros”). Now I’m going to investigate some more. Thanks again, Rara!

  3. All the dissertations of the Univ. of Helsinki are online in PDF form. I’m definitely going to be looking at “Four Ways of Writing the City”: St. Petersburg-Leningrad as a Metaphor in the Poetry of Joseph Brodsky by Maija Könönen and Èto i to v povesti Staruha Daniila Harmsa [This and that in The Old Woman, a short story by Daniil Kharms] by Jussi Heinonen.

  4. I am glad to see that Bryan Kozlowski, in his 2016 book What the Dickens?! Distinctly Dickensian Words and How to Use Them (p. 168), uses Webster’s definition: “Bustling and active, especially in a trivial way.” I hope whoever ran TDW is pleased!

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