Q From William Tarbi: Recently I received an invitation to attend a cigar herf. On looking through my dictionaries I found no entries for the term. Do you have any information regarding this apparently new slang word?
A This is a curious term, with an odd genesis.
It has now been firmly established, in part by the work of Barry Popik, that the term first appeared online:
I tried several when I first began smoking cigars and found them all to be very bland and almost impossible to herf, they were so tightly wrapped.
A posting by somebody known only by his nickname Prince of Skeeves to the newsgroup alt.smokers.cigars, 21 Nov. 1996.
A herfer. (Photo: Michael Ivanov)
A few months later the writer explained that he first heard the term at a “junior college in Clyde, Texas, in 1982 from a blueblood derelict friend of mine named Stu”. It meant “the ungainly and humorous facial contortion required to deeply draw on a large, hand-rolled cigarette of unknown filling.”
The word became popular in the newsgroup, leading to coinages such as herfers, herfnicks and herfaholics. A number of Web pages record that a herf, in your meaning of a meeting of cigar fans (a herf obviously enough being a situation in which one herfs) was arranged by members of the newsgroup in April 1997 under the title of The Texas Herf On The Lake. A newspaper report three years later on another meeting that had been organised through the newsgroup is one of the few times the term has appeared in print:
They are cigar fanciers. More than 100 of them in all shapes and sizes came to York recently to swap stories, down some beer, and, of course, puff happily on their favorite stogies. These get-togethers are called herfs, and they’re a big deal for people with computers, a love of cigars and a willingness to travel.
Daily Herald (Tyrone, Pennsylvania), 18 May 1999.
Herf is well established within the cigar fraternity in the US, though it’s unknown outside it. One site describes it as “A lively gathering of cigar-smoking comrades who meet in a club, restaurant, cigar store or home to share their appreciation of fine cigars.”
That leaves us with the head-scratching problem of where the Prince of Skeeves’s friend Stu got it from. I posed the question on the mailing list of the American Dialect Society. Douglas Wilson suggested that it might be linked to the slang verb huff, which is defined in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang as “to inhale the vapors of [a drug], as a method of becoming intoxicated”, with examples going back into the 1960s. Huff and herf aren’t so very far apart in sound.
An alternative suggestion was put forward by subscriber David Warnick, who tells me that herf was a fairly common slang term during the Vietnam War, meaning to carry a heavy load for a long way. It’s possible that a term for straining under a heavy weight could have become softened in time to the difficulty of drawing on a densely rolled cigarette.
As things stand, that’s the best I can offer.