I've had a lot of stuff on my mind lately. I've just completed a personal reorganization project involving moving a lot of boxes and storage crates around. Through it all, stuff has been a word as useful as the dolly a friend of mine has kindly lent me. Hmm, that stuff needs to go over there, and that stuff needs to come here ... and so on.
And yet there are places where stuff really can't go, just as there are places I wouldn't go dressed in the aging khakis I wore to schlep around the aforementioned boxes and crates.
But material, related to matter, can go many of those places. A middle schooler may tell his teacher he found "some cool stuff" for his class project on this or that website. A researcher presenting a report to her boss, on the other hand, may say in the cover memo that she has drawn on some "material" previously published in such-and-such journal.
Stuff has a French cousin (étoffe) but it sounds very sturdily Anglo-Saxon, with its single syllable and its short "u" sound, the one I think of as the "blunt u," which turns up in so many punchy English words, such as, well, punch.
Stuff is an element of many compounds that are perfectly standard formal English, such as breadstuffs or foodstuffs. "Free stuff," by the way, turns out to be a carpentry term for timber free of imperfections.
Stuff in the informal sense can be a wonderful bit of professional shorthand in a busy newsroom. I remember one morning early in my time on the Monitor's editorial page when I arrived and heard the page editor review possible topics for that day's lineup.
He began by noting, "There's the Kennedy stuff." Senator Ted had made some announcement or other, evidently. Then the new boss cited a couple of other major news developments we might want to weigh in on, possibly "the Soviet stuff," as it was then, or maybe "the Middle East stuff" – as it was then, is now, and probably will be for the rest of my writing career.
I hadn't looked through the papers yet and felt as if I had shown up for class without having done the homework. But this wonderfully broad-brush way of referring to the day's big topics as so many piles of conceptual "stuff" gave me a certain cover. I didn't have to reveal what I didn't know. "Oh, yeah, the Kennedy stuff," I murmured.
Now as I poke around for clues as to where stuff works as a full-service standard English noun, and where it slips into the realm of the middle schooler finding "cool stuff" on the Web, the principle that emerges seems to be concreteness. Stuff is OK when it refers to "the tangible substance that goes into the makeup of a physical object," as one of the Onelook.com quick definitions reads. "Wheat is the stuff they use to make bread."
Stuff goes over the line into informality when it refers to a mix of ideas, events, concepts – the Kennedy stuff, the "cool stuff" on the Web. And stuff is definitely over that line when it refers to the physical artifacts – papers, clippings, discs, books, photos, and the like – related to this conceptual stew.
Organizational guru David Allen defines "stuff" (in quotation marks) as "anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn't belong where it is, but for which you haven't yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step."
There's also stuff in the sense of "showing the stuff you're made of" – idiomatic, but not informal.
Then there's the stuff one knows and shows. That may be slipping back into an informal usage – but it's an engagingly forceful one, and exactly the right idiom in certain situations.
After all, if you're in some kind of trouble, do you want a champion who's "mastered the material" – or someone who "knows his stuff"?