“I see that the word ‘duffer’ is defined as ‘a person inexperienced at something, especially at playing golf,’” illustrator Barry Blitt told Françoise Mouly, the art editor at The New Yorker, about his cover for the magazine’s April 10 issue. “That’s the word that comes to mind as I watch President Trump plowing one drive after another through the glass windows of American politics.”
That’s where the image came from. But where does duffer come from?
The sense that Blitt cites is indeed the one in common use today. But it’s not the original one. In the mid-18th century, duffer – etymology unknown, according to the OED – meant “a trader or pedlar [peddler], especially a dishonest one who dupes others into buying inferior goods for a high price, e.g., by pretending that they are valuable items which have been smuggled or stolen, and offered as bargains.” Charles Dickens used the word with that sense in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844): “ring-droppers..duffers..or any of those bloodless sharpers.”
Trump Steaks via GQ, which reproduced a bunch of reviews from 2007 – the year the brand launched – and excerpted key words: “mealy,” “grainy like liver,” "bland," “dry," "greasy and tasteless,” “no flavor, overpriced, and just gross.” The company, which sold its wares primarily through QVC and The Sharper Image catalog, is now defunct; the trademark for Trump Steaks was canceled in December 2014.
But in the 1840s, right around the time that Dickens was writing about “sharpers,” another sense of duffer was emerging:
A person who is, or proves to be, without practical ability or capacity in a particular occupation or undertaking; an incompetent, inefficient, or useless person; (also) a person lacking in spirit or courage. Also more generally: a stupid or foolish person.
The etymology of this duffer is also uncertain. It may have come from the Scottish dowfart: “a dull, stupid, or foolish person,” which derives from dowf, which literally means “deaf” and which has the metaphorical meaning of “stupid.” (Dowfart’s alternate spellings include dofart, doofart, duffart, and duffert.)
Or, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, it may have originated in 18th-century thieves’ slang, where to duff meant “to dress or manipulate an old thing and make it look new.” From this sense we get a third duffer: a counterfeit coin or any object that is no good. In 19th-century Australian mining jargon, a duffer was an unproductive mine.
Trump Ice bottled water. Launched in 2004; failed about one year later. More Trump brand failures here.
There’s no proven connection between any of these duffers and duff, which has at least six independent meanings, including “soft, decaying vegetable matter that covers a forest floor” – that one appears to be a variation of dough – and “the buttocks” (etymology uncertain; originally North American; example sentence: “Get off your duff and go to work!”). Since World War II, “up the duff” has meant “pregnant” in Australian slang.
Duffel or duffle – a type of sturdy cloth or something made from that cloth – isn’t related to duff or duffer. It arrived in English in 1602 from the Belgian town of Duffel, where the cloth was originally sold; duffel bag entered U.S. English in 1915, when American doughboys were contemplating action Over There. Doughboy had been around since as early as the Mexican-American War of 1847, perhaps from a resemblance of uniform buttons to doughy biscuits. That dough brings us back to at least one duff, and a slang meaning of dough – “money” in American slang since about 1851 – brings us back to the subject of this week’s New Yorker cover.