Word of the day: faff

Over the last few days, I’ve been in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, running a teacher development seminar for around 150 wonderful locals. In one particular session, we were looking at pronunciation, and I was talking about the way my own approach to dealing with pronunciation in class has changed over time. I mentioned that when I first started teaching – and, if I’m honest, throughout the first few years of my teaching career – I avoided using phonemic symbols like the plague. Like most native-speaker teachers, I’d never needed to use them myself before I started teaching, and I found many of them hard to remember. There’s also something strangely counterintuitive about them: they don’t always make sense or seem obvious! I mean, what genius decided to represent the sound in words like day and gay and play with the symbol /eI/? Anyway, until I was basically forced to start using them by my students’ constant demands for them, I avoided them because I found them such a faff!


If you call something a faff – or a right faff, a real faff, a major faff, a proper faff, a complete faff or even just a bit of a faff – it means you think it involves spending unnecessary time and effort on something that basically isn’t important. It’s often used as a complaint about the time-consuming nature of things that add such limited value to life, so the kind of parent who decides it’s not enough to throw a white sheet over their kid’s head on Halloween, but instead chooses to spend five hours making an elaborate costume may then complain that the whole proess was such a faff! Happily, of course, these complaints often fall on deaf ears!

You may feel that buying shoes or clothes online isn’t worth the effort, as it’s such a faff having to send them back if and when they don’t fit; you may love cooking, but moan about the fact that peeling potatoes or grating cauliflowers is a right old faff; you may be trying to get on to the wi-fi somewhere, but just end up giving up because the whole process is a total bloody faff! In fact, this is what often happens to be when travelling as many places require you to enter your phone number so you can be sent an access code, but then when the code comes through, you have to exit the log-in to see the code . . . only to find that when you try to log in again, you’re back to square one! It’s incredibly frustrating!

Faff is also used in phrasal verbs, so if you waste time doing things that aren’t important, you faff around (or faff about). Stressed-out parents who are trying to get their kids out of the door and off to school may scream “Can you two just stop faffing around and get a move on?!” Or if you have some work that you’ve been putting off for ages, you may finally wake up one morning and decide it’s time to stop faffing about and get on with things!

Oh, and just in case you were wondering, in the end, I got over my fear of phonemic symbols and started using them far more consistently in class. All’s well that ends well!

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  • What kind of things do you generally avoid doing because you find them a right old faff?
  • Are there any people you avoid like the plague? Why?
  • Do you find phonemic symbols useful when you’re learning English?
  • When was the last time you had to tell someone to stop faffing around and get a move on?
  • Do you ever faff around and put things off when you know you should really just get on with them? When?
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3 Responses

  1. Andriy Shyrochenkov says:

    Does ‘faff’ basically mean the same as ‘hassle’? Or you can faff about while enjoying it? If they’re not synonyms, what other words are similar in meaning to ‘faff’? Thank you.

    • hugh dellar says:

      Hi Andriy –
      Thanks for reading and for the question.

      As a noun, FAFF is more or less interchangeable with HASSLE, yeah, so in the examples above, you could say I found them such a FAFF / HASSLE / PAIN / BALL ACHE (!!) as you wished. However, FAFF is also used as a verb in phrases like STOP FAFFING AROUND or IT’S TIME TO STOP FAFFING ABOUT and obviously HASSLE can’t be swapped in here. In the same way, drunk guys can HASSLE women in bars or on the street – but can’t FAFF them!

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