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Suffonsified

Q From Ruth Gaeta: I hope you can run down an elusive phrase, part of which I can’t spell. It’s from Virginia-North Carolina, an older generation, (maybe a hundred years back) and probably from the Appalachians. Three different older friends remember their grandmothers’ using it. It means ‘I’m full’ or ‘I’ve had plenty to eat’. Phonetically: ‘My sufficiency is serrancified’. All four of us are curious about its origins.

A You’ve led me a merry dance with this one. I can’t find that exact word, but there are a number of close relatives around, which some American Dialect Society members have helped me tease out.

The phrase seems to be a variation on a polite rejoinder that was once quite widely known and is still around. A host might ask if you have had enough to eat. Rather than just say that you had had enough, being fearful that so bald a statement might be taken as unrefined or ill-bred, you might instead say, “I’ve had an elegant sufficiency”. This presumably has its origin in some catch phrase old enough that it has had time to disseminate widely, since I’ve seen examples from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Australia, and the USA. A possible source is a poem called Spring by James Thomson, dating from the middle of the eighteenth century, very widely quoted during that century and the following one:

An elegant sufficiency, content,
Retirement, rural quiet, friendship, books,
Ease and alternate labor, useful life,
Progressive virtue, and approving Heaven;
These are the matchless joys of virtuous love.

Paul McFedries, who runs the WordSpy mailing list, wrote to say, “My grandmother-in-law (born and raised in Southern Ontario) often says ‘my sufficiency is suffonsified’ ”. He found an example of this spelling online: “My sufficiency is suffonsified; any more would be double superfluency”. He also turned up some variations, such as: “After a fine meal was served and eaten, she would sit back in her chair and say ‘My sufficiency is suffancified’ ”, as well as the hugely elaborated “All of my sufficiencies have been suffulsified and any further indulgence on my part may well prove to be super sanctimonious”.

All the examples I’ve quoted seem to be jocular elaborations of satisfied, perhaps — as subscriber G H Gordon Paterson suggested — a punning blend of sufficient and fancified, but nothing I’ve turned up shows how that word became so baroquely decorated in parts of North America. I suspect that it is from the same grandiloquent and flamboyant fashion that gave us words like absquatulate, but tying down its early history is hard, as it appears in no dictionary I can trace.

Following the first appearance of this piece in the Newsletter, many subscribers supplied their own memories. Taken together, they suggest that the expression is best known in Canada and that it was originally something like “My sufficiency has been suffonsified and anything additional would be superfluous”. That form of the word is the one that is most common in online searches, where the Canadian focus is also obvious. Cheryl Caesar pointed out that it appears in a passage in Margaret Atwood’s novel, Cat’s Eye: she has two teenage girls living in Toronto in the 1940s who say, “Are you sufficiently sophonisified?”. A Vancouver restaurant reviewer has the pen name “Sufficiently Suffonsified”. Oddly, there’s also a 1999 record by the Austrian band Cunning Dorx whose title is Paradigms Suffonsified. There are some tantalising suggestions that the phrase may actually be Scots, and not New World at all.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Aug. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 3 August 2002.