What does ‘faffing’ mean?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: faffing….

I had heard that a recent book by Benjamin Dryer was a delightful, amusing read and that it was about, of all things, copy editing, but I’d somehow never managed to buy it for myself. And libraries have been closed during the pandemic.

Problem solved when a friend braved quarantine orders and dropped off a copy of Dryer’s English for me as a belated Christmas gift. My goodness, what a marvellous book!

Funny, erudite and wise, the book had me chuckling and chortling for the entire time I read it. Dryer also gave me several new words, including today’s, faffing. Or, more completely, faffing about.

Here is how Dryer used it:

I wandered into my job early three decades ago — a lot of people wandered into careers in those days; you could just sort of do things — after a few too many years post-university waiting on tables and bartending, attending revival-house double features, and otherwise faffing about.

I could guess from context that it meant what in North America we might describe as, “fooling around,” or even “farting around.” But why hadn’t I heard this expression before?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it’s a UK term, meaning, to spend your time doing a lot of things that are not important instead of the thing that you should be doing. Synonyms include: behaving in a silly way, playing the goat, horsing around or monkeying around.

The etymology of the word dates back to the late 18th century (originally in the sense of ‘blow in puffs’, describing the wind). The current meaning  may have been influenced by the word faffle meaning ‘to stammer, stutter’, or later, ‘to flap in the wind’, which came to mean ‘to fuss, dither’ in the late 19th century.