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Word trends: stuff

The e-commerce site Amazon has a section titled ‘Where’s My Stuff?’ to help customers find out about undelivered orders. The use of such a vague, casual term in a corporate context is an example of the growing acceptance of informality in Internet language, but stuff was not always such a vague or informal term. It dates back to Middle English, where the Oxford English Dictionary records various different specific meanings, ranging from ‘the baggage belonging to a soldier or an army’ and ‘fabric for making clothes’ to ‘materials for filling a pie’:

1533 We made a pye … The preest payde for the stuffe and the makyng.

The current, vague sense of stuff (i.e. matter, material, articles, or activities of a specified or indeterminate kind) is first recorded in the OED in the twentieth century, and is found in several sources, including George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four:

You thought I was a good Party member. Pure in word and deed. Banners, processions, slogans, games, community hikes—all that stuff.

It’s now a very twenty-first century word: the Oxford English Corpus, our databank of current English usage, shows that stuff has become steadily commoner since the year 2000. Its informality and vagueness allow it to be used in innumerable contexts. It can refer to objects, actions, events, ideas, and personal qualities. Although often found with positive words such as cool, new, and great, it also features highly with more negative adjectives, such as weird, scary, and bad:

There’s still a lot of cool stuff happening in Manchester
We began writing new stuff straight away
There’s so much great stuff in this movie
I’ve had a lot of weird stuff happen to me
Most would have seen the coverage on television, and it was very scary stuff

Stuff seems to be one of those words whose meaning has changed greatly and often over the years and is still in the process of developing. Anyway, Oxford Dictionaries will continue to record these changes for you, so don’t sweat the small stuff and check out more cool stuff here:

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