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What’s the difference between kerfuffle, commotion, and fuss?

For example:

  • What’s all this kerfuffle about?
  • What’s all this commotion about?
  • What’s all this fuss about?
  • They are all nnce terms for chaotic social phenomena, but there are differences. Kerfuffle is a regional term, suggesting only regional/tribal/irrelevant confusion, nothing to see here, not important, move along, please. Commotion suggests (a) larger than normal number of people and (b) more than normal degree of motion and/or confusion among them, with problems arising; no source or connotation implied. Fuss means the same as commotion without the necessity of a large number of people; a single person can make a fuss, but not a commotion. – John Lawler Jan 19 '14 at 23:38
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    What, no brouhahas, farragos, or hotchpotches? For some reason, where I grew it was always kerfluffle with an extra L, like fluffing your pillow. It seems thereby to have more of a connotation of a flock of birds fluttering about in loud disarray and going nowhere. – tchrist Jan 19 '14 at 23:41
  • @JohnLawler “Regional” as in something you might expect to find in DARE (Dictionary of American Regional English)? – tchrist Jan 19 '14 at 23:44
  • Yes, possibly; and just as possibly also "country", as a general derogatory term. There are probly some places where this is the actual nonce term, but it's been through quite a lot of variation as an eye spelling, so there are social implications, as there always are; when liberties are taken with the Standard, it's always by the Standardholders. – John Lawler Jan 19 '14 at 23:46
  • Hm, both variants seem to occur, albeit hardly in equal distribution. More like 10:1. – tchrist Jan 19 '14 at 23:49
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I love questions concerning nuance :)

In those specific sentences I can't infer much difference, but there are indeed subtle differences in their definitions and uses. If it's all the same, I'll omit the dictionary definitions since you undoubtedly know them.

Here is my succinct list of each word's defining subtleties. Note that they are not comprehensive and are merely the differences*I* frequently notice.

Commotion: Does not necessitate a sentient being. Pots and pans clanging in the kitchen could be as much of a commotion as excited fans at a baseball game. To me, this is the most distinct word of the trio. When it does involve people, it is usually more than one or two.

You knew instantly that the storm had landed by the sudden commotion outside.

The team's victory led to a great commotion as the fans decided to celebrate by running wild in the streets.

Fuss: Requires a sentient being (or sentient beings) to bring it about. You would not say:

That rock was causing such a fuss.

Gah, that door is so fussy.

Kerfuffle: Kerfuffle concerns interpersonal disagreements. For example:

Emily's fussiness led to the serious kerfuffle that eventually ended her promising date.

In a way, the differences could be perceived as gradations or size, scope, and intensity. A commotion could be a mere raucous, a fuss is a raucous that is perturbing, and a kerfuffle is a specific type of interpersonal fuss.

Also, kerfuffle is the most fun to type.

  • No problem! It was a fun question. – emsoff Jan 20 '14 at 2:32
  • Great answer. But I've never seen 'raucous' used this way. Does it have the same connotation as 'ruckus'? – Jim Mack Jan 20 '14 at 3:30

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