PIFFLE
E. B. White wanted to resurrect the word "piffle."

In One Man’s Meat, E. B. White wrote the single line: “Remind me to discuss the necessity for reviving the word piffle.”

I’ve found no further reference to the word in his writing. Perhaps we failed to remind him.

Because his words were always carefully chosen, we can trust that his request has much meaning. He wanted to discuss, not command. A distinct event must have triggered his thought, because a necessity is created when something has happened, not merely when someone ruminates. I suspect he wrote that line after he had endured so much piffle – among his acquaintances? in journalism? among politicians? – that he felt he must speak out.

Reviving a word suggests that it has no equal in our common discourse today. Why? Often a word goes out of use when it is presumed to offend. We no longer refer to a man as a scoundrel or describe a child as crippled. Bombast is now labeled debate-leading-to-compromise. It’s now kinder to describe a liar as someone who is a little economical with the truth. Truth, which offends both as a word and by its very existence, has been sanitized and is now admitted into discourse only so long as it is understood to be subjective.

Walker’s Dictionary of 1821, which sits on my own book shelf, doesn’t include the word. But a 1936 collegiate dictionary at my disposal, suitably innocent of the corruption of our speech by the modern indignation over our insensitive language – (too many precise words like piffle in the dictionary, too few useless but shockingly profane words, both errors in our lexicon corrected since the 1960s) – defines piffle as: trifling talk or action; stuff and nonsense; noun or intransitive verb.

Gossip, then? Sensational reporting and celebrity-worship? Political speech and correctness? What annoyed E. B. White that he would revive the word, no doubt in order to use it?

Among my treasures I have “a card,” apparently one of a mass mailing sent in 1864, not handwritten but printed at my ancestors’ local print shop in Farmington, Maine. For printing in their newspaper “false and libelous statements and innuendoes” about him, the author succinctly, scathingly denounces, to one and all receiving the card, that the editors of the Farmington Chronicle are slanderers and liars. There, he said it. I’ll never know whether the accused fought back, through the mail or in the courts. But the scoundrels sufficiently annoyed the card-writer to occasion an eloquent outburst.

I don’t imagine that E. B. White, certainly being aware how genteel folks of the past used punishing words with such effect, himself intended to disseminate that sort of an accusation, for which he needed the perfect word, piffle. I suspect instead that, due to some annoyance, the word came to mind, and he wished only to encourage its use that people once again might know there was a word for it, might identify stuff and nonsense, pomposity, perhaps, or gossip and call it by name; that, by knowing the word, people might use it, and by using it, might effect a shift in our culture away from tolerance of so much trifling talk or action.

(Just as it is widely held in some cultures that to know someone’s name is to have power over him, to know the name for trifling talk or action, stuff and nonsense is to have power over it. Who hasn’t had a vague, subconscious sense about something of which he didn’t become aware and over which gain control until he could put a word to the sensation?)

I wish E. B. White were here in order that we might remind him. I’d be fascinated to know where he intended to go with it. To his memory as the all-time supreme keeper of words, I humbly pledge to revive the word, piffle.

2002
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