Memories · Word of the week

Word of the Week: poof

Poof: I think that’s how it’s spelt, though it might be puff. It’s a word people used in the 1970s to describe a homosexual, along with its 2-syllable alternative “poofter”. People used it in a similar way to how we use the word “wuss” these days. A kid doesn’t want to dive off the low diving board at the swimming pool? His classmates might say, “Don’t be such a wuss”. In my day his classmates (and indeed teachers) might have said, “Don’t be such a poof”.

Some of my drinking buddies over the years have used the word with anyone refusing the offer of a drink or, even worse, anyone asking for a half rather than a pint, unless they were driving of course. (None of my drinking buddies have ever claimed that they drive better when they’ve had a few drinks.) Here is a typical response to someone turning down the offer of a pint: “What are you, a poof or something?”

I have no idea what proportion of people would be offended by this, and am unlikely to do much research into it. I don’t have many drinking buddies here in London but one of them is in a civil partnership with another guy and I doubt that he would be offended. (But then he’s never suggested having a half instead of a pint, and even if he did I’m not sure that I’d try out the question, however light-heartedly.)

The word has been on my mind for a while now because I used it in “1000 Memories”, twice. (The memories are also here, on the Memories Menu.) Someone had painted the word onto the sign at our school playing fields. As I recall the graffiti was there for years, spelt “Poofs”, but an old school-friend who has read the book believes that it was spelt “Puffs” instead. He could well be right. That’s how he remembered it, and he remembers wondering what it meant. It would rhyme with ruffs rather than, well, what does rhyme with poofs? For most of us it was the first time we had seen the word written out. We both remember that the word was there but have different memories of how it was spelt.

The word (pronounced as puff, to rhyme with ruff) features in Jilted John’s song “Jilted John”, which you can hear here. (“Not that puff,” I said dismayed / “Yes but he’s no puff,” she cried.). Like many things from the 1970s it hasn’t endured quite as well as I’d remembered. Towards the end of the song, after singing that “Gordon is a Moron”, John calls his ex-girlfriend Julie a slag, a tart, a slut and a bitch, all of which are more offensive to my ears these days than the word puff. Mind you, if you search for the song on the World’s Leading Search Engine the first video you encounter (and not the one that I’ve linked to above) contains something far worse: an introduction by Jimmy Savile. The unexpected sight of him was more offensive to me than any of these abusive terms for women and homosexuals.

 

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