At first glance, the word looks like it could be onomatopoeia — perhaps the sound a cat makes when coughing up a hairball (incidentally, the technical term for that ball of undigested hair is trichobezoar, from the Ancient Greek word forming prefix tricho-, meaning “related to hair,” and the Middle Persian word pad-zahr, meaning “antidote or counter-poison.” In ancient times, certain animals — bezoars — were ground up and injected as antidotes for poisons). A good guess, but that is not what a foofaraw is. A foofaraw is making a big fuss over a small matter; you are probably familiar with the synonymous idiom “don’t make a mountain over a molehill.” In etymology, as in nature, birds of a feather flock together: foofahraw attracts other strange sounding synonyms and related words, eg, ballyhoo, brouhaha, hullabaloo kerfuffle, and williwaw. The secondary definition of foofaraw is adding unnecessary or excessive ornamentation to something (eg, a building, clothing item, or furniture). The word is pronounced “FOO fuh raw.”
Like many colorful words, foofaraw has its roots in American history. The word first appears in the writings of pioneers of the American West (about 1850-1910). The word appears with several variant spellings: froufraw, for farrow, and fofaraw. The word originally referred to baubles and frivolous trinkets, that pioneers used in trade, but sometime after 1930, the word took on a new meaning: making a big fuss over something. Although it is easy to romanticize about life as an intrepid pioneer under the spacious skies of the American West, working the land for food and shelter, life for the early pioneers was brutally difficult. Early settlers could only survive through sheer will and determination and unwavering adherence to the Protestant work ethic. You can see why they needed a word like foofaraw — there just wasn’t anytime for making a big fuss over anything. If you want proof, watch one of the most fascinating historical reality shows on PBS: Frontier House (2002), where the filmmakers selected three modern families to live life exactly like the pioneers who lived in Montana in the 1880s for five months. Each family had to establish a homestead and master the skills of that time: animal husbandry, carpentry, chopping wood, clothes washing, cooking, farming, gardening, harvesting skills, personal hygiene (realize there was no toilet paper), sewing, and soap making. There is no need to provide any spoilers, but let’s just say that all three families struggled to get through the five months.
Let us return to our discussion of the word: so how did the pioneers come up with this strange-sounding word in the first place? Etymologists believe the word is a a mishearing of the Spanish word fanfarron (“braggart”), making it sort of a linguistic mondegreen. Another possibility is that it is derived from the French word froufrou (the rustling sound made by a dress or showy ornamentation) or the French phrase for fou faraud (“a foolish dandy”). So the next time you hear a cat cough up a hairball, don’t make a foofaraw over it.
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For further reading: pbs.org/show/frontier-house/