Susie Dent’s Top Tens: 10 words for faffing about

Anyone get a sense that we’re just fiddling about as the apocalypse approaches? If you feel beset by the mubble-fubbles, a 16th-century description of an attack of the blues or sense of impending doom, then you might at least find solace in the plethora of words in the historical dictionary for faffing about instead of attending to the important stuff.

Susie Dent


Twiddling, fiddling, piddling – there’s clearly something about an ‘-iddle’ that expresses the act of frittering time away. Quiddling, from the 17th century, has the added dimension of busying yourself with trivial tasks as a way of avoiding the proper ones.


To spuddle, 17th-century style, is to work ineffectively and feebly, simply because your heart isn’t in it.


We all know one. We may even be one. An eyeservant is a worker who only really applies themselves when the boss is looking.

Office Workers

An ‘eyeservant’ is a worker who only really applies themselves when the boss is looking.

pick a salad

Imagine looking down at a plate of lettuce and idly stabbing at the leaves without much appetite at all. This is the metaphor behind ‘picking a salad’, which means half-heartedly applying oneself to a trivial occupation. One writer from the 16th century expressed it thus: ‘He that laboureth no thyng wholly but catcheth a patch of every thynge is mete to pycke a salad’.


There are arguably few pithier expressions for messing about and wasting time than ‘futzing’, recorded from the early 1900s. Its origin is elusive, although it may have begun with the Yiddish ‘arumfartsen’, to ‘fart about’. Wherever it came from, the very sound of ‘futzing’ is perfect for the act of achieving little.

fanfreluching it

The French ‘fanfreluches’ describes kitschy knick-knacks of little value, as well as light objects carried by the wind. Both ideas floated into English in the expression ‘fanfreluche it’, meaning ‘to trifle or act wantonly’.


Recorded in glossaries of Lincolnshire dialect, ‘niffle-naffling’ involves spending time with little purpose and to very little end. Think of social media and you’ll instantly get the idea.


‘Picking a salad’ means half-heartedly applying oneself to a trivial occupation.


Like the fanfreluches, a ‘fal-lal’ is a frivolous bit of trumpery-finery and ornamentation. It follows, then, that to ‘fal-lal it’ is to pretend to be knuckling down whilst in fact dilly-dallying for England.


Shaffling is the 19th-century equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns. To shaffle is to vacillate, dither, and potter around the edges even as the world collapses.


The ultimate in futzing is surely the boondoggle: a trivial, over-expensive, and entirely unnecessary undertaking. A term with a hazy history – one theory has boondoggles as the braided leather lanyards worn by Boy Scouts, fiddly things to produce – it has really found its feet in the political sphere, where it describes a project with a huge budget that benefits no one. But its usefulness is undeniable, and used as noun or verb, ‘boondoggle’ is a lovely articulation of a complete and utter waste of time.

Want to hear more from Susie about the infinitely bizarre and fascinating world of language? She’s speaking to the top brass of British comedy and entertainment about just that, and it’s all free to listen to here on whynow.

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