The Grammarphobia Blog

Muffs, mufflers, and muffed

Q: My wife is using a small blanket to cover her fractured hand. She can’t get a glove over her brace. The other night, she said, “Hand me my muff.” I thought of Mimi’s cold hands in La Bohème. Also “muffing” a fly ball, the “muffler” on necks and cars, and the more salacious uses. Hmm.

A: The “muff” that warms your hands is related to the “muffler” that warms your neck. And to “muff” a fly ball may also be a relative of the hand warmer, but that etymology is up in the air. As for those hot words, you can thank the hand warmer too.

The first of these words to show up in writing is the “muff” that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a “covering, often of fur and usually of cylindrical shape with open ends, into which both hands may be placed for warmth.”

The OED labels the term “historical” (that is, relegated to the dustbin of history), though we remember seeing lots of them in our youth. Well, perhaps we’ve become historical ourselves.

The earliest example of the usage in the dictionary is from Sym and His Brudir (1568), a Middle Scots satire of church abuse: “His beird it wes als lang & blak / That it hang our his mouf.”

The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue suggests that the word “mouf” in that citation may refer to “a muffler of some kind round the neck.” It’s hard to tell from some of the early examples in the OED whether the term is being used for something to warm the hands or the neck.

However, the next Oxford citation clearly refers to a hand warmer, though we had to go to the original text to confirm it. Here’s an expanded version of the passage from The Fountaine of Selfe-Loue; or, Cynthias Reuels, a 1601 satirical play by Ben Jonson:

“Mary, I will come to her, (and she alwayes weares a Muffe if you be remembred) and I will tell her: Madame your whole selfe cannot but be perfectly wise: for your hands haue witte enough to keepe themselues warme.”

The OED says English probably borrowed the word from Dutch, where mof is now a muff as well as an ethnic slur for a German, but the ultimate source is the Middle French moufle (mitten). The online version of Émile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la Langue Française traces it back to muffala (medieval Latin for “mitten”).

The use of “muffler” for a “wrap or scarf (freq. of wool or silk) worn round the neck or throat for warmth” appeared at the end of the 1500s, according to citations in the OED.

The first example is from Mother Bombie, a 1594 comedy by the dramatist John Lyly: “Silena, I praie you looke homeward, it is a colde aire, and you want your mufler.”

Interestingly, the “muffler” that warms your neck is related to the “muffler” that deadens the sound of your car’s exhaust, a usage that showed up at the end of the 19th century.

Both senses are derived from the verb “muffle,” which comes from moufle, the same Middle French term believed to be the source of “muff.”

When “muffle” showed up in the 15th century, it meant to wrap something around the face to provide concealment or protection from the weather.

The first OED example is from Generides, an anonymous medieval romance, or adventure story, written sometime before 1450: “She mufled hir face hir to desgyse / That noon shuld know hir in noo wise.”

By the 16th century, “muffle” also meant to cover someone’s mouth to prevent speaking—for example, to gag someone.

Here’s an early definition from Manipulus Vocabulorum (1570), an English-Latin dictionary, by Peter Levens: “To Muffle ye mouth, obturare.” (In Latin, obturare is “stop up.”)

And in the 18th century, “muffle” took on the sense of wrapping something—such as a drum, a bell, or an oar—to deaden sound:

“They laid all their oars across, except two in each boat, which they muffled with baize, to prevent their being heard at a distance.” (From a 1761 issue of the British Magazine, or Monthly Repository for Gentlemen and Ladies, edited by Tobias Smollett.)

The OED describes the use of “muffler” for the device on a vehicle as “chiefly N. Amer.” The earliest citation is from A Standard Dictionary of the English Language (1895), edited by Isaac Kaufman Funk:

Muffler, a device to render noiseless the escape of steam from a vacuum-brake, exhaust-pipe, or safety-valve.”

(With a former classmate, Adam Willis Wagnalls, Funk founded the Funk & Wagnalls Company, known for its dictionaries and other reference books.)

To answer your question about muffing a fly ball, we’ll have to back up somewhat and begin with a version of the noun “muff” that showed up in the early 19th century.

This “muff,” the OED says, means a “foolish, stupid, feeble, or incompetent person; spec. one who is clumsy or awkward in some sport or manual skill.”

Oxford says this sense of “muff” may come from the word’s original use for a hand warmer, “perhaps conveying the sense of something soft (and, by extension, something weak), or perhaps implying clumsiness commensurate with keeping one’s hands in a muff.”

The dictionary’s first example is from A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language (1819), by James Hardy Vaux:

Mouth, a foolish silly person …. Muff, an epithet synonymous with mouth.” (Oxford defines “flash language” as the language of thieves.)

The new noun usage led to the use of the verb “muff” for bungling on the playing fields, though the earliest example in the OED is from cricket, not baseball:

“All the best of our players completely muffed their batting.” (From Cricket Sketches of the Players, an 1846 book by William Denison, a cricketer and sportswriter.)

The earliest known baseball citation is from the Aug. 12, 1882, issue of the Philadelphia Press: “That usually reliable fielder muffed the fly.”

By the 20th century, the verb “muff” was being used in the wider sense of bungling something or making a mess of it.

Here’s an example from The Hairy Ape, a 1922 play by Eugene O’Neill: “Yuh got what I was sayin’ even if yuh muffed de woids.” And here’s one from a 1941 letter by J. R. R. Tolkien: “I muffed my exams.”

We’ll end with what the OED describes as the slang use of the noun “muff” for the “female pubic hair. Hence also: the vulva, the vagina.”

The earliest Oxford citation is from A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, a 1699 slang dictionary written anonymously by “B. E. Gent”:

Muff, c. a Woman’s Secrets. To the well-wearing of your Muff Mort, c. to the happy Consummation of your Marriage Madam, a Health.” (The Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford has published the book as The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699.)

Interestingly, the OED labels the pubic sense of “muff” as slang, but it labels “muff-diver,” “muff-dive,” and “muff-diving” as coarse slang. It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall as the dictionary’s editors discussed the labeling of these terms.

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