Monday, October 19, 2015

Stuff and Nonsense

If you’re watching the baseball playoffs, you may hear the commentators discuss a pitcher’s stuff. “He’s got great stuff…nasty, off-speed stuff…mediocre stuff…tremendous stuff…plus stuff,” and so on. What exactly is “stuff”?

John Branch attempted to define it in a recent New York Times article, which concluded that stuff is an “inelegant word of ill-defined mush.” Like pornography, you know it when you see it, but you can’t really say what it is.

The etymological origin of stuff is Anglo-French estuffes, meaning “goods,” which derives from the French estuffer, meaning to “fill in with rubble, to furnish, or to equip.”   

In English stuff is a versatile word, with many varied meanings. Its fundamental definition is “materials, supplies, gear, unspecified substance." It can also mean "special knowledge,” as in "She knows her stuff"--the particular usage that is undoubtedly the source of the word's entry into baseball.          

Various explanations of stuff, as applied to a pitcher, have been suggested. Merriam-Webster says it means “spin imparted to a thrown or hit ball to make it change course, the liveliness of a pitch.” Others say it means “velocity” or “power.” One all-encompassing definition is “the ability to throw a pitch in the strike zone that will overpower or dominate a hitter.”

Stuff has been a baseball term since at least 1896, when an article in the New York Times said, “It is thought that he has some genuine baseball stuff in him, though it is in an immature state…” The next documented use of the word came in 1911, when Pittsburgh Pirates manager manager Jack Miller said of New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson, “He not only has better control, but he has more stuff—better speed and a better curve ball.”

Whatever stuff is, when it comes to hopes for a World Series championship, the starting pitchers might boast, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is very familiar with the term, since every time he starts to recite one of his verses, his fans shout, “Stuff it!”

                        Little Miss Muffet
                        Told her broker to stuff it
                        When she looked at her 401(k).
                        She won’t have to rough it
                        Since her pal Warren Buffet
                        Sold her on Berkshire Hathaway 

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