Ninth Blog: That's the "Stuff"

We've all played the game "What Would You Bring With You On a Desert Island?". It could be three things or five or ten; or even one. Most of the time it's in reference to the arts with topics like fave movies, albums, celebrities, possible smart or interesting people, i.e. Einstein, Marie Curie... Pee-wee Herman (say what you will but the guy isn't boring). And sure, it'll turn to hot movie stars and sex 'cause like everything does in the end, right? But sometimes it's really all about survival which immediately gets people focused on the basics: water, food and a host of ingenius MacGyver-like maneuvers designed to turn a couple ordinary backpacks into a glamper's paradise. So when it's finally my turn to answer I pause for effect before offering up the usual... "My stuff". As expected, it gets a lot of head-shaking and groans and, yeah, the words "that's cheating" and "totally not fair" get bandied about but deep down inside they know it was the right answer.

"Stuff" is a lot of things, purposely vague, monosyllabically quick and virtually effortless to pronounce, not to mention easy on the ears with no hard consonants or guttural tones. It slips in and out doing a yeoman's job before the recipient even knows what's hit 'em. Better still, it's got chops when it comes to versatility. It can be grandiose as in "the stuff of legend"; "the stuff of greatness" of even "the stuff of dreams". It can get all outlawish on you in a back alley with "Hey, you got the stuff?" It can be exciting: "Wow, that's some heady stuff!" or signaling someone has a grasp on the situation like "she really knows her stuff". Or, more often than not, it's just referring to things in general, like "I have to grab my stuff" or "See ya', got stuff to do."

"Stuff" is a great word to use, too, when you're not quite sure what you're dealing with: "Whoa, dude, what's that stuff all over your shirt?" or "That oily black stuff floating on the lake; that can't be good." It's also perfect to generalize without having to go into detail, as in "He's my favorite writer; I really like his stuff" or that pitcher's unhittable; he's got nasty stuff." And, yeah, it can cop a tude if necessary: "Forget that guy; he's a stuffed shirt"; "You don't like it?... stuff it!" or "Hey, why don't you just stuff it up your--"... (almost forgot; I don't work blue).

So, this incredibly innocuous word, how did it get so permanently entrenched in our vocabularies? The origin of "stuff" dates back to the early 14th century, defined as "quilted material worn under chain mail (armored shirts, not the obnoxious letter you received from a now "former" friend demanding you resend to ten other people or you'll die in a horrendous industrial accident) which doesn't help us at all. Later, in the 1570s, it's labeled as a "matter of unspecified kind" in regard to possessions (the "hey, that's my stuff" connotation) which is more relevant but not quite what we're after. No, clearly what we're looking for here is how did "stuff" become so omnipresent?

Like the vast majority of deep mysteries, the answer can be traced back to one word: teenagers. Recall yourself at sixteen, coming in from school with that "I'm too cool for the room" attitude, opening the fridge, searching desperately for something that's not a vegetable or fruit; something fun. Suddenly, "How was your day?" It's mom with a genuine, caring smile aimed your way. You shrug, prematurely forced to grab a yogurt en route to your bedroom. "So what'd you learn at school today?" You hit her with the one word reply, "Stuff". Head down, you've reached the hallway. "What kind of stuff?", the inquisition continues. One foot in front of the other; your room only feet away. "Ya' know... just... stuff." You turn the handle, your mom's groan muffled by the closing of the door. You shut your eyes, letting out a relieved sigh. "Stuff", you think to yourself with an impish grin, "it totally works every single time." You throw your school stuff on the floor next to your other stuff and hit the remote, searching for some cool stuff to watch on TV.