Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Spiffed

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 31, 2011

The word spiff may mean Still Picture Interchange File Format in the Information Technology Industry and it might stand for the St. Paul International Film Festival in Pop Culture.  In the movie Harvey starring Jimmy Stewart, it’s found in the explanation Elwood P. Dowd gives Dr. Sanderson at Chumley’s Rest as to how it is he met Harvey the Pookah.

ELWOOD:  I – I just — put Ed Hickey into a taxi. Ed had been mixing his rye with his gin and – and he – I just felt that he needed conveying. Well, anyway, I was walking down along the street and I – I heard this voice saying, ‘Good evening, Mister Dowd.’  Well, I – I turned around and here was this big six-foot rabbit leaning up against a lamp post. Now, I thought nothing of that because when you’ve lived in a town as long as I’ve lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everybody knows your name. And naturally, I – went over to chat with him.

And – and he said to me, he said, ‘Ed Hickey was a little spiffed this evening, or could I be mistaken?’ Well, of course, he was not mistaken. I think the world and all of Ed, but he was spiffed. (MAKES NOISE) Well, we talked like that for a while – and then – and then I said to him, I said, ‘You have the advantage on me. You know my name – and I don’t know yours.’ And – and right back at me, he said, ‘What name do you like?’  Well, I – I didn’t even have to think twice about that. I – Harvey’s always been my favorite name. So I said to him, I said, ‘Harvey.’ And uh – he – and – – th- th- this is – this is the – the interesting thing about the whole thing. He said, ‘What a coincidence. My name happens to be Harvey.’

In the jazz era 1920’s, spiflicated and spiffed were added to the list of slang words such as hammered, sloshed, tanked, blitzed, bombed, wrecked, loose, tipsy, trashed and smashed that meant an individual was drunk.

The Pittsburgh Press of April 12, 1912 reported on Mrs. Lydia Ayers of Stockton Avenue, Northside who landed before Magistrate Christ Saam at the Allegheny police station on a charge of being drunk.  The headline read:

Didn’t Remember About Become Spiflicated

In a story by O. Henry entitled, Strictly Business: More Stories by the Four Million, published by Doubleday in February 1910, he used the word spiflicated to indicate drunkenness in the story “A Bird of Bagdad.”

Me? well, it’s either me or Bill Watson. She treats us both equal. Bill is all to the psychopathic about her; and me?—well, you saw me plating the roadbed of the Great Maroon Way with silver to-night. That was on account of Laura. I was spiflicated, Your Highness, and I wot not of what I wouldst.

Back in August 19, 1902 the Bruce Herald in New Zealand carried a story in the Ways of Living column entitled, “The Story Of A Barrel Of Beer.”  It told the story of two men going off in search of a little alcohol on a Sunday morning and the ensuing adventure they had together.  It recounted in part:

This was about ten o’clock on Sunday morning.  We drank so much that we got half intoxicated.  Then we went home to the house in order to make provision to carry beer away.  We could only lay our hands on beef tin cans, and we removed a good number of gallons in these primitive utensils.  By two o’clock we were both getting well splificated.  I said to my mate, ‘Jock, I think the best thing to do is to take a barrel with us right off.’

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published reference for either spiflicated or spiffed with regards to being drunk.  That being said, that it would appear in a news story in 1902 indicates that it was already understood by the general population — at least in New Zealand — that the reference was to being drunk.  We can safely assume that this definition then was in existence at least in the preceding decade, taking it back to the early 1890s.

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One Response to “Spiffed”

  1. Slava said

    From etymonline.com:

    spiffy
    1853, of uncertain origin, probably related to spiff “well-dressed man.” Spiffing “excellent” was very popular in 1870s slang. Uncertain relationship to spiff (n.) “percentage allowed by drapers to their young men when they effect sale of old fashioned or undesirable stock” (1859), or to spiflicate “confound, overcome completely,” a cant word from 1749 preserved in Amer.Eng. slang spiflicated “drunk,” first recorded 1906 in O.Henry.

    How we get from well-dressed to well-lubricated, I’d love to find out. And, just where was this word hiding for a century and a half? It’s from 1749, but first recorded in the early 1900s?

    Plus, does it relate at all to squiffy? Or is that just a coincidence of sounds?

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