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Google says "faff" is just British English. Is it well understood in other English speaking regions? If not, is there an international alternative?


faff

BRITISH informal

verb: faff; 3rd person present: faffs; past tense: faffed; past participle: faffed; gerund or present participle: faffing

  1. spend time in ineffectual activity. "we can't faff around forever"

noun: faff

  1. a great deal of ineffectual activity. "there was the usual faff of getting back to the plane"
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Sep 11 '16 at 17:49
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It appears the expression is still mainly a British one:

From the Phrase Finder:

  • Faffing about' is a phrase that is most often heard in the UK rather than in other parts of the English-speaking world. In fact, even in the UK it is something of an anachronism, more at home in a P G Wodehouse story than as 21st century street slang.

From World Wide Words:

  • It’s originally British, informal but not rude, and moderately common, especially in the form to faff about. The Daily Telegraph included this on 15 March 2008: “The early boarders certainly bag their seats quickly, but then they immediately relax and happily faff about putting their things in the overhead locker, generally getting in the way of the other passengers.

  • The word started to move into the wider language in its modern sense around the end of the nineteenth century, though it didn’t much appear in print until the 1980s.

Fom Wiktionary:

  • (Britain, slang) To waste time on an unproductive activity.
    • She faffed about so much, she never got to eat her breakfast.
    • I decided to stop faffing about and get some work done.

From One-off Britishisms:

  • “The Ben Wyatt I know, I don’t think he’d be happy just sitting here faffing around.”

  • The Britishism in there is derived from faff, a verb meaning dither or fuss, and is usually followed by about. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation, from an 1874 volume called Yorkshire Oddities, suggests that it originated as a regionalism: “T’ clock~maker‥fizzled an’ faff’d aboot her, but nivver did her a farthing’s worth o’ good.”

  • Up till now, U.S. use has been spotty (and I don’t mean spotty in the English sense). It is a favorite of New York Times sports blogger Jeff Z. Klein, who, covering the 2008 women’s soccer matches at the 2008 Olympics, wrote:

    • Much faffing about as these final minutes tick down. New Zealand have a throw. in deep in the Amerk zone, but the one Fern is surrounded by four Americans and winds up on her back as they run away with the ball.
  • Klein’s use of the plural verb have with the collective New Zealand indicates he has absorbed a bit too much English football coverage, and suggests that faff is still more or less a one-off.

As noted by a few users, the expression appears to be commonly used in Australia where it may have found its way in the early days as suggested the Phrase Finder:

From "The Australian Journal", 1879:

  • "No, it [a candle] burns quite steadily now; you are right about it faffing about before, because it blew towards my face."

  • Baring-Gould's citation locates the phrase amongst the rural working classes and its use in Australia at a time when English speakers in that country were predominantly ex-UK convicts, suggests that the phrase was to be found below rather than above stairs.

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    I agree with all of this except for Phrase Finder calling it an anachronism: I'm happy to report that "faff" and "faff about" are still in popular use in the UK. eg theguardian.com/fashion/2016/jul/10/… "It’s the natural-looking, faff-free alternative to all that foundation" – Max Williams Aug 16 '16 at 13:38
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    Also used in South Africa. – Gustav Bertram Aug 17 '16 at 14:14
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    @Gustav Bertram - it would be helpful if you could provide some reference to that usage. – user66974 Aug 17 '16 at 15:07
  • It would be good to, whatever extent possible, show its absence from the US vernacular. – Dean MacGregor Aug 18 '16 at 5:22
  • @DeanMacGregor - comments from American users appear to confirm that the expression is quite unusual, if not absent, in AmE. That doesn't mean that it couldn't be understood in the U.S. but it certainly is not common. – user66974 Aug 18 '16 at 6:37
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I would say it's somewhat common here in Australia (although I am British).

It certainly has a lot of results on Google search of Australian websites, such as this gem on the 'achievements' of our Great Prime Minister:

http://www.afr.com/opinion/editorials/mr-turnbull-has-to-stop-faffing-around-20160310-gng85i

Note, this is not a .com.au website, but AFR = Australian Financial Review.

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    We Aussies normally use "fart around" (for ineffectual activity) or "dag around" (for not much activity at all) as both the verb and noun phrase, but augustly conservative newspapers like the AFR would treat with disdain such scatological usage. – Reinstate Monica Aug 17 '16 at 7:23
  • @Chappo I've never heard 'dag around' in QLD, and 'fart around' is hardly common at all. Those are probably only common in other states. – curiousdannii Aug 17 '16 at 10:03
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    Dagging around might be a "football States" thing ;-) . A search for "to dag around" brings up plenty of hits. I checked with other Melbournites and the term farting around is definitely preferred to faffing around (which no one said they would use), but my teenage son thought it's an "old person's term" and would use pissing around instead. * Sigh * – Reinstate Monica Aug 17 '16 at 10:40
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    @Scott - it would be interesting if you posted a link with an Australian English dictionary entry to "faff" – user66974 Aug 17 '16 at 15:05
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    The Macquarie Dictionary says: faff - /fæf/ (say faf) verb (i) 1. to dither. –noun 2. a fuss; dithering. –phrase 3. faff about (or around), Colloquial to engage in useless activity in a time-wasting manner. [British colloquial faff to dither; origin obscure] – user66974 Aug 18 '16 at 10:51
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This is a well used and understood phrase in South Africa, so is "Arseing around". We also say "Stop standing around looking pretty.". An American equivalent would be "goofing off" or "fooling about".

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    The latter phrase of course originated as a description of Arsenal's play. – T.E.D. Aug 16 '16 at 20:51
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    As I understand it, someone goofing off is doing nothing. Someone faffing around is doing something, just not something that will lead to any useful result. "Fooling about" is closer, but that person doesn't intend to do something useful. You're often faffing around if you don't know how to do something, so you do just anything. – gnasher729 Aug 17 '16 at 17:17
  • @gnasher729 "goof: 1.spend time idly or foolishly; fool around." goofing off and fooling around can be used interchangeably unless the context suggests that they actually weren't doing anything, so you both could be right. – Dispersia Aug 18 '16 at 16:56
  • @gnasher729 - to re-use the aircraft example; you're fooling around if you're throwing a ball back & forth between friends seated a few rows apart. You're faffing around if it takes you 6 attempts to get just the right items out of the overhead locker. – Tetsujin Aug 19 '16 at 12:32
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The word “faff” and related phrases are commonly used in Ireland. Here’s an example of a newspaper article from earlier this year which uses the term, “faffing” in its headline.

7

It would be understood, even though it's not commonly used.

As a Canadian, I've heard the term (and similar phrases like "fanny about") mostly on British TV shows. Some British shows (Top Gear, Downtown Abbey, Doctor Who, QI, etc.) are popular here, so even though Canadians and Americans rarely use the terms, many people would know them.

In the verb form, there's a context clue, because "x-ing around" and "x-ing about" are almost snowclones. If I say that I'm dicking around, puttering around, goofing around, farting around, screwing around, messing around, etc, people know that I'm engaged in idle/wasteful activity, even if they've never heard that particular variant before.

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    It may be understood in context but from comments in the OP, and my own personal experience, I don't think you can confidently say "It would be understood". I think, at best, it may be understood. – Dean MacGregor Aug 18 '16 at 5:20
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Many phrases have spread much further in the last few decades due to the internet. However, local phrases often trump these newcomers, simple because they are more common in the area. From personal experience, I first heard "Faff" on the Rooster Teeth Podcast, because of Gavin Free. However, I still use "screw" instead in the same context, because that is more common where I grew up. 'Screw around' and 'Faff about' are synonymous.

The fact of the matter is that it originated in England, so it will almost always be considered British English. There will always be people who have heard it anyway, due to the internet. But it will almost always be most common in its place of origin, like most words.

  • Just for another perspective, Screwing about/around and Faffing/Fannying about/around are NOT synonymous to me. (Screwing about would be unrelated to the task, faffing would be wasting time during a task). 33 year old englishman who's lived around the country. – Soylent Graham Aug 19 '16 at 11:17
  • Interesting. So, if faffing is wasting time during the task, does that mean that (to you) it is unintetional? So, for example, if I was an artist, if I used a tiny brush for the backdrop on a big canvas instead of a larger brush, that would be faff, but if I walked away and talked at the water cooler that would be screwing around? – EvSunWoodard Aug 19 '16 at 14:29
  • Yeah, that's a pretty good analogy :) Like, sorting all your clothes into colours, whites, darks, delicates for 30 minutes, before putting them all in the washing machine at once, is "faffing about with the washing". Sorting them, then stopping to put them all on at once to take a selfie, is screwing around. (at least to me, there's a distinction) – Soylent Graham Aug 19 '16 at 15:48
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I agree with the many answers saying that you can't expect this word to be understood in most English speaking areas, including the US.

But you requested an alternative phrase. Here are some I'm familiar with in America:

screw around

Urban Dictionary:

  1. having frivolous sex
  2. playing, or wasting time

Lacking a sexual context, I would definitely assume the 2nd definition, but apparently this has strong sexual connotations for some, so careful with that. When wasting time, I am "screwing around".

fool around

This is pretty much the same as "screw around", but with stronger sexual connotations. It would refer more to cheating on a partner than just having random casual sex.

Other, similar phrases include:

dicking around, puttering around, goofing around, farting around, messing around, putzing around, horsing around, fucking around

"Puttering", "goofing", "farting", "putzing", and "horsing" wouldn't have sexual connotations.

... off

Some of those phrases could substitute 'off' for 'around': screwing off, goofing off, fucking off.

Examples (Urban Dictionary):

fucking off: To not be doing anything or doing nothing at all. Wasting time just to pass the time. Chris didn't do anything at work, he was just fucking off all day!

screwing off: see "dicking around" stop screwing off you dumb wanker and help me

... about

Any of those phrases could substitute 'about' for around, but I think it's less common. One word 'about' pairs well with is 'lazing': lazing about.

wasting time

This is just directly saying what you're doing, but not an uncommon phrasing.

There are many idioms available. In my experience, the most common is 'screw around'. If you want be certain you're understood, just say "wasting time".

  • AKA Putzing or futzing around – xQbert Aug 18 '16 at 20:20
  • @xQbert Yeah, I guess I hear 'putzing' occasionally, mostly to refer to retired men. I hear 'futz' as in "let me futz with it" when trying to mess with something to get it to work. Not sure if I've heard that as a word for wasting time before. – DCShannon Aug 19 '16 at 0:14
  • "Goofing off" I'm familiar with, but I've never heard "screwing off" in any context except maybe screwing a lid off a bottle, and I've only ever heard "fucking off" in the context of leaving [the place or the situation], eg "I'm fucking off [from here] before the invasion starts." – Reinstate Monica Aug 19 '16 at 0:45
  • @Chappo I'm sure some of them are regional. I would say "screwing off" is 100% synonymous with "screwing around". I've never heard "fucking off" as referring to leaving somewhere. If you said your example sentence, I would think you were going to stay where you were and waste time unproductively until the invasion started. – DCShannon Aug 19 '16 at 1:07
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    Thanks @DCShannon. Fascinating! and +1 for research :-) . However, it's worth noting the OP requested international alternatives, whereas "screwing off" and "fucking off" are primarily U.S. usages - see e.g. Oxford's definition of fuck off which lists the meaning I'm familiar with as the primary one. – Reinstate Monica Aug 19 '16 at 1:24
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A native Finnish speaker, but with an extensive vocabulary of English and understanding of both British and American particulars of the language; I've never heard 'faff' before. In fact it's a word that doesn't bring any kind of image in my head, either. I often learn words by making a guess and verifying the meaning from thesaurus or dictionaries, but with 'faff', I'd be at the mercy of the a dictionary (or Google, of course! ;-)

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American here. I've probably never heard this word before, but in general if someone were to say anything of the form "_____ around" then I'd automatically know that the phrase is synonymous with "screwing around," "messing around," etc. You can put virtually anything in the blank. Moreover if you put something like "faff" in the blank I'm going to assume it's some kind of fancy British word, just from how the word sounds.

protected by tchrist Aug 19 '16 at 11:24

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