Put it down to a generational thing.
For several weeks we’ve been reading and hearing news reports about a controversy over the name of Muff Rd, a rural road in South Canterbury. A resident wanted it renamed but the local descendants of Yorkshireman Sam Muff, after whom the road was named, insisted it be kept.
Newsreaders and journalists smirked knowingly as they reported developments in the saga. Among other things, we were told that signposts bearing the name Muff Rd were stolen as quickly as they could be put up.
All trés amusant, except that a huge number of viewers/listeners/readers weren’t in on the joke.
Among Generation X-ers, which includes most of the journalists now working on newspapers and TV news bulletins, it’s well known that “muff” is a slang term for the female genitals and a “muff diver” is someone who performs cunnilingus. But it’s my guess that few people over the age of 50 – and that’s an age group that includes an awful lot of TV viewers and newspaper readers – would be familiar with these meanings.
The relatively recent currency of the slang form of “muff” is confirmed by the fact that it isn’t listed in my Chambers Concise Dictionary, published in 2004. It is, however, in my 2005 edition of the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary. (Amusingly, one of my daughters tells me she didn’t know the word had any other meaning, besides the vulgar one, until my inquiries on the subject encouraged her to look it up.)
It’s a fairly basic tenet of journalism that you shouldn’t leave people scratching their heads in puzzlement, but that’s exactly what happened here. Not one news report that I’ve seen, heard or read bothered to explain why the word “muff” was considered controversial or funny. This raises the intriguing possibility that while “muff” was considered good for a snigger, reporters and news editors were too prudish to spell out what it meant.