Do you ever look at pictures of 14th century knights in their chainmail and think, “Blimey! That looks uncomfortable”? No? Well, pretend you do.
As if they didn’t have enough to worry about with the Black Death and the Hundred Years War, the last thing a warmongering noble needed was a severe bout of chafing, so they wore a comfy quilted tunic underneath all the metal. Today, battle re-enacters refer to this garment as a gambeson or, if they want to impress the chief re-enacter, an aketon, but if they really wanted to be authentic, they’d call it a stuff.
The French have a verb ‘étoffer’, meaning to pad or flesh out, and it’s the ancestor of this word that gave us the word ‘stuff’ – a word which has experienced a phenomenal boom in popularity in recent years. Back in the 70s, schoolteachers would beat you if you used a word as vague as ‘stuff’ or ‘thing’ or ‘nice’ in a piece of composition, so we all grew up trying to be more descriptive with our vocabulary. But at some point in the last 40 years we seem to have rebelled against that approach and we use the noun ‘stuff’ quite flagrantly. I can back this up with statistics. According to Google Ngrams, the occurrence of ‘stuff’ in the mid-70s was just of seven in every million words. Today it is over 36 per millions – an increase of more than 500%!
The modern use of the word – non-specific substance or materials – dates back to the 1570s, having previously been used for specific substances or materials, eg foodstuff. Presumably the food industry wasn’t the only one to use the word in this way. There must have been shipbuildingstuff, haberdasherystuff, plaguestuff and any other stuff you care to mention, but eventually they all merged into one nondescript mass of stuff.
For something so blatantly non-specific, it’s a surprisingly useful word. I sometimes send emails with the subject line ‘Stuff’ and the recipient knows exactly what I’m going to be emailing about: various things, considerations, questions, matters etc. It’s the perfect heading for a list with no theme and, as such, it is more specific than just about any other word we have. Hence the expression “she knows her stuff”, implying specialist knowledge of something very specific.
The verb ‘to stuff’, on the other hand, still means pretty much what it always did, as in a quilted tunic, a chicken or the Australian Women’s football team. Which reminds me of a valuable piece of advice I picked up this week: if you’re ever being chased by a gang of taxidermists, don’t play dead.