Writer in Residence

Stuff Happens

By Irina Kovalyova

The other day I picked my almost-7-year-old daughter from school. I asked her, with my usual level of enthusiasm, “How was your day?” “Good,” she said, with her usual lack thereof. “What did you do?” “Stuff.” “What kind of stuff?” I prompted her, undeterred. (Was it too much to ask?) “You know,” she said, “stuff.”

Since that afternoon, I’ve been thinking a lot about stuff and decided to blog about it. “Gosh, mom,” my daughter said. “You’re running out of ideas.”

Be that as it may, I began to investigate. I asked itself: What is stuff? Where does stuff come from? Why is there stuff rather than nothing? (No, I told myself quickly, better leave that one alone). Rather, and more applicable to my situation, what particular stuff was my daughter talking about when she told me she did stuff at school?

Since I like to know where words come from, I look them up regularly in dictionaries. My most trusted source in that department is The Oxford English Dictionary. (Ah, remember the days when you wanted to look something up and trekked to the library? While there, you had to search for the Reference section and then to pull heavy volumes off dusty shelves? The OED was one of those volumes I used to browse for fun as a kid. These days of course I just ask Siri or Mr. Google to look things up for me. Since the Internet has made it super easy for people to find, you know, stuff.)

In any case, the OED has the following entries under the main entry “stuff:” bit of stuff, clear stuff, doctor’s stuff, do one’s stuff, good stuff, great (also good, excellent, etc.) stuff, in stuff, know one’s stuff, nonsense and stuff, stuff ball, stuff-bottomed, stuff-chest, stuff engine, stuff-finisher, stuff goods, stuff of money, stuff of victual (?), stuff-seller, stuffs of war, and stuff shoes (this is not all: I skipped a few).

That’s a lot of stuff to go on for a single blog. I hope you agree. Plus, I didn’t think my daughter had meant any of the above when she told me she did stuff at school.

That brought me back to the question of where did the word “stuff” come from in the first place? Maybe, if I knew the answer I could craft it into a gateway. Yes, I could segue from telling my daughter where the word stuff came from into her telling me exactly what stuff she’d been up to in school.

It was a good plan.

The OED told me that the ultimate etymology of the word “stuff” was obscure (?!) but it might have come from: Middle English stoffe, stof, or Old French estoffe, which was material, furniture, especially textiles. Or, it might have come from Provençal estofa, Spanish estofa, or Portuguese estofa, all of which, helpfully, meant cloth. Or, it might have come from Italian stoffa, which was piece of rich textile fabric, matter, or (wait for it) stuff.

That’s right. Stuff from stoffa. How in the world? It seemed like I round-tripped to the beginning before my quest for the truth behind stuff had begun.

Why was there something rather than nothing? Indeed!

Then, I remembered another parent who’d spoken to me the other day, while both of our kids were in gymnastics class, jumping up and down on balance beams. I was watching silently through the glass panel, trying hard not to shudder too much, when the other parent turned to me and asked me something terribly strange.

Did my daughter also tell me stuff that happened in their school every single day? Because that’s what her son did. He just wouldn’t shut up. And it was driving her mad!

He told her everything – everything!!! she emphasized with a curious smile. Every single evening, he described his school day in meticulous details. He told her about morning math, social science, and the magic three. He told her about primary choir, the police officer’s visit, and the end-of-school gifts. He told her about the home reading, the field trip to Grouse Mountain, and the Young Actors Workshop. In fact, his tendency to tell her everything was so extreme, that she handed him regular silent time-outs to save her sanity.

I picked up my daughter from school the next day and asked her, with my usual level of enthusiasm, “Wanna go for ice cream?” Why sweat the small stuff, right?

 The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Irina Kovalyova has a Master’s degree in Chemistry from Brown University, a doctoral degree in Microbiology from Queen’s University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. She has previously interned for NASA and worked for two years as a forensic analyst in New York City. She was born in Russia and currently lives in Vancouver.