I don’t have a copy of One Word: Contemporary Writers on the Words They Love or Loathe (2010), edited by Molly McQuade, but its premise is inviting: “What one word means the most to you, and why?” Most of us, if honest, would answer I, the word we utter most often in conversation (and in blog posts). Eric Ormsby’s answer is more inspired, the “supple conjunction” or. He writes:
“It's not a showy word but a worker word, a syntactic functionary; and yet, for all its organizational aplomb, it secretly delights in nuance and ambiguity. Or stands like a squat bouncer at the revolving door of the disjunction. It bears the yoke of alternatives—`to be or not to be’—with all the robust orotundity of an ox.”
Shakespeare deployed or in his works 2,562 times, compared to 28,944 appearances by the, 27,317 by and, and 14,945 by a. Joyce uses or 958 times in Ulysses and 930 times in Finnegans Wake. In the latter novel, of course, Joyce gives pride of place (the last word, so to speak) to humble the, as he had more famously to Molly Bloom's yes in Ulysses, though the Wake circles back to its beginning. The novel’s final eleven words are common English monosyllables, as though even Joyce were getting tired of all the quadrilingual puns:
“A way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs”
Like Ormsby, I too would select a suggestively simple word, one I’ve been rationing for the appropriate occasion: duff. I like the silly sound, the bounty of meanings and its ease of rhyme: bluff, buff, chough, chuff, cuff, fluff, gruff, guff, huff (Groucho in Duck Soup: “You can leave in a taxi. If you can't get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that's too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff”), luff, muff, puff, rough, ruff, scruff, scuff, slough, snuff, sough, stuff, tough and tuff.
Duff is also Homer Simpson’s beer of choice, a common surname and Arabic for “drum,” but the Oxford English Dictionary gives seven definitions -- four nouns, an adjective, two verbs – from “dough, paste” to “the buttocks, the backside” (as in “Get off your duff”). “Up the duff,” we learn, means “pregnant,” and “duff” in golf means “to perform (a shot) badly” (thus, “duffer”).
Best of all, “duff” is the stuff on the ground in a forest, decaying leaves, needles, branches and bark, midway between living biomass and soil. Richard Wilbur uses it in this sense in “To Ishtar”:
“It is all we can do to witness
The waste motions of empty trees,
The joyless tittering duff, the grass-mats
Blanched and scurfy with ice.”
In “Again,” Howard Nemerov writes of “Needles and mull and duff of the forest floor.” In his essay “Bears, Bears, Bears” (Red Wolves and Black Bears, 1975), Edward Hoagland says of a Minnesota biologist looking for black bear:
“If he’s near one of them and wants a glimpse, he lifts a handful of duff from the ground and lets it stream lightly down to test the wind before beginning his stalk.”
In the whimsical spirit of the word itself, Aldo Leopold writes in A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There (1949):
“Incoming [pine] needles take office in June, and outgoing needles write farewell addresses in October. All write the same thing, in the same tawny yellow ink, which by November turns brown. Then the needles fall, and are filed in the duff to enrich the wisdom of the stand. It is this accumulated wisdom that hushes the footsteps of whoever walks under pines.”