Monday, 12 May 2014

Chuffed - The Quintessential Britishism

A smiling girl lying down surrounded by Harry Potter books
This girl looks chuffed with her Harry Potter collection ...
(photo by Martina K Photography)


Adjective. Slang. Mid-20th century.
[Compare with CHUFF adjective, chubby, fat, pleased, happy (origin unknown).]

1 Pleased. M20
2 Displeased. M20

An odd dichotomy to growing up with a distinctly English accent is that many people don't like the English on principle - apparently we're cold, stuck up, arrogant, condescending, chauvinistic, have terrible food and a horrible colonial history. On the other hand, people are simultaneously fascinated, even enamoured, with us - we've given the world the international language, Mr Bean and the Premier League, are bizarrely good-mannered, are an (oddly small) world power, and we speak in a charming, old-fashioned, quaint but rather attractive way. And before anyone gets their knickers in a twist about this on principle that the English are not to be liked, I've been told each of the above things personally. Numerous times. Wherever I've travelled.

So perhaps I can be excused for sometimes playing on my accent and way of speaking. While I don't quite have the full on, six plums in the mouth, BBC Received Pronunciation that is the Queen's English, my accent, being from the south of England, is just 'proper' enough and replete with enough bizarre, old-world Britishisms to carry that charm. And yes, at times I play on that for my own advantage, loading my language and writing with more crikeys, dashings, blimeys, muppets and bloodys than I would otherwise use naturally (not that such words won't just pop out of my mouth all of their own accord anyway).

One particular Britishism that never needs any help, however, is chuffed, a word that's unusually popular with foreigners (particular Americans) but one that, to me, is so natural that it always takes me by surprise when an American girl points at me with a beaming smile and exclaims "Aw! You said 'chuffed'! I just adore that word!"

A girl with a look of happy surprise on her face
OMG no way! You guys actually speak like that!
(photo by John MTS)
Why chuffed is so adorable, quaint and popular is something of a mystery. Perhaps, just as there are inherently funny words, there are inherently likeable words too, as chicle (chewing-gum) seems to be in Spanish. A friend from Madrid once asked me, out of the blue, if I liked the word chicle, as for some reason foreigners tended to and he didn't know why. Although I was a bit miffed at my English predictability, I had to admit that, yes, I really like the word chicle, and I didn't really know why either.

What's also bonkers about chuffed is that it's steeped in mystery and contradiction. According to the OED, chuffed doesn't only mean 'pleased' but 'displeased' too, although I have to say that in my 34 years as a native English speaker from England I have never heard it used in this way, and were someone to do so around my parts I would expect it to cause a bally dose of confusion.

As to what chuffed does mean, I would use it as a synonym for being delighted about something. Thus, rather than just waking up feeling chuffed for no particular reason, I would be chuffed because of something such as, say, receiving a compliment, or getting a job, or winning a game. Often, too, there is a touch of pride with chuffed, as I feel chuffed at a particular achievement.

However, a word of warning to non-native adopters of this much loved adjective - it's chuffed. Don't drop the ed and say 'chuff' as, depending on where you're from, this can mean a number of different things, including a boor, a miser, a generally unpleasant person, the buttocks, the anus and (ahem) a lady's private parts.

A hand writing 'I passed!' on a notebook with a smiley face
This is a good reason for feeling chuffed
(photo by Kirsty Andrews)
Do you like chuffed?

How do you use it?

Do please leave your most delighted and delightful comments in the box below.


  1. Whether we're dead chuffed or thrilled skinny, the really important thing is that we keep our peckers up.

    1. Well said, Sally - stiff upper lip and all that ...

  2. I think "chuffed" is only used in certain parts of England though Ed. For instance, no one in Liverpool would say they were chuffed. They'd be "dead made up".
    If "chuffed" is steeped in mystery and contradiction, good luck figuring that one out.

    1. I'd like to find that out, A.N.

      With regards 'chuffed' meaning 'displeased', I just assumed that was from up north for some reason (though I don't actually know).

      'Chuffed' is mysterious because no one knows where it came from (various sources said it was originally military slang, but I couldn't confirm that and the OED doesn't say that) and it means so many different things. If the etymologists couldn't solve this one, I don't think I'll be able to.

  3. People don't like the English in general? Really?
    I've not encountered it at all - maybe because I'm from a Commonwealth country?
    I've mainly come across great admiration for you English folks.
    That should make ya dead chuffed now!

    Well said Sally!!

    1. Well ... the English are disliked *on principle* because of the colonial history, but on a one-to-one people don't dislike them *because* they're English.

      As I said, this prompts a bizarre array of reactions when you travel:

      "Oh wow! You're English!" (happy face and a beaming smile, before switching to ...)
      "Do you know what you did here?" (... stern, scary, accusatory face)

    2. Exhibit A: A Fish Called Wanda. And I quote "You English! You think you're so superior, don't you? Well you're the filth of the planet! A bunch of pompous, badly dressed, poverty stricken, sexually repressed football hooligans!"

      But that's just John Cleese and Charles Crichton talking.

    3. Hahaha! Oh yeah - football hooligans! I forgot about that one.

  4. "Chuffed" is right up there with my all-time favorite Britishisms. It is absolutely delightful. Just thinking about the word has me grinning.

    As a US-type, I only discovered the word recently. Now I have a whole network of folks back home using (and most likely misusing) chuffed. About which, of course, I am both pleased and displeased. But I would like to see someone say "chuffed" with a frowny face. I just can't quite picture it.

    1. Do keep spreading the chuffing gospel back home, Katie - I'm trying to imagine 'chuffed' spoken in the slow drawl of the deep south. And d'you know what? I think I can.

  5. I never use it at all - it must be that tricky D putting me off ;). [be aware that I'm not English and though our English teaching is good enough the teaching of slangs is still frown upon - so on your information request in FB I'm going to answer "not used at all" :D]

    And after reading about these reactions ""Aw! You said 'chuffed'! I just adore that word!"" and ""OMG no way! You guys actually speak like that!"" I think I'll keep not using it. Nothing displeases me more than the sight of tonsils and the slight shriek that goes with them ;).

    And now way I'd risk missing the D and having to explain the meaning when I can practice my most British six plums in the mouth haughty "pleased (enough)" ahahah

    People don't like the British?! Really? We do! Send them over... just don't bring the chicle as not even you can pull that disgusting look (just have one teen more to traumatize about that dreadful and disgusting habit ;))

    An interesting word - can be used for a meaning and its opposite - if you tend NOT to skip your D's ;)

    Thank you for sharing. Cheers,

    Teresa (having problems in commenting and as in explaining words and meanings this will be my second, and last, tentative ahahah)

    1. Slang is a really important part of language, Teresa, and vital for someone that wants to truly master a language and the culture of the language ...

      However, I agree with you ...

      This is probably not the word for someone that can't hit that final D : o )

    2. I believe younger generations have it easier - in fact, teachers must prefer they learn slangs and really understand the meaning, as they'll certainly find it in FB, Instagram etc and will need it to look cool (enough) - but back in "my time" you'd ride the dictionary looking for slangs and other words ;)...

      The fact it's not a very used word - even for slang - around here. I asked during lunch break! And guess what, most not even knew the word... and no I didn't tell about the D ;) people need some activity in their lives :o

    3. Oh internet slang on the likes of FB and texts is really difficult. I speak reasonably good Spanish, but Spanish txtspk ... !

  6. Chuff - the noise that steam rollers and traction engines make. Chuffs - Noise from a leaking exhaust joint on a car. e.g."my car chuffs a bit until it warms up". Personally, I would be really chuffed to have a ride on a locomotive footplate.

    1. Welcome to Lexicolatry, Eric.

      And yes, there are loads of different meanings for 'chuff'. In my first draft of this post, I had them all typed out, but it was getting a bit long and cumbersome, especially when what I really wanted to write about was everyone's favourite Brit-slang. But yes, one of the definitions listed in the OED was the sound a steam engine makes.