The word spiffy is an American English slang word that has been in use at least as early as 1853, when it is first recorded in a letter written by the artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti to describe the frame of his water color painting.
In the Glasgow Herald (Glasgow, Scotland) of 27 January 1860, a letter regarding volunteers and veterans mentions, “They’ve a notion that we like to come out spiffy in our uniforms, and think that our ball practice is just for fancy-ball work.”
In 1863 the Freeman’s Journal of Dublin Ireland, speaks of “one of the most “spiffy” things imaginable to see the appearance the gallant fellow presented…”
So why am I calling this a New Hampshire term? Because I’ve heard it used numerous times in New England, but never by someone outside of New England.
Spiffy is related to the term “spiff” which is a well-dressed man. By the 1870s the term “spiffing” indicated excellence. In 1906 O’Henry used the word to indicate someone who was drunk (I’ve never heard it used that way).
The word spiffy becomes popular once again about every 20 or so years, as it was used in again in the 1920s, then the 1940s. On 9 December 1921, the Groton Times (Woodsville, New Hampshire) included a story about “Knickers made of Homespuns,” and stated “The knickers reach below the knees, where they are full and blousy, looking akin to golf trousers, and are met by very “spiffy” looking woolen stockings.” On 11 March 1925 the Portsmouth Herald included a cartoon called “Doings of the Duffs” where one of the characters states, “You aren’t dressed quite as spiffy as most of these…”
In 1947 the Nashua Telegraph newspaper advertised a “Spiffy” invisible collar Staydown pins at Liggett Rexal Drugs store. In 1948 The Portsmouth Herald’s advertisement for Grants store on Congress Street stated “Santa’s Spreading Spiffy STuff.
In the mid 1960s, the one-season television show, Camp Runamuck, included a senior counselor “Spiffy.” By the 1970s I remember my father often using the term “spiffy” to describe someone who was well dressed. By at least 1979 the Boston Globe was using the term, when it described that the federal government had a “spiffy” [or fine looking] warehouse.
By 1980 the use of the term spiffy was at its grandest height. It was being used to describe everything from a Buick Electra, how the Boston Celtics were shooting, to how the British army looked during the American Revolution. It seemed like every newspaper article was calling someone or something spiffy. This continued into the 1990s when its use dropped off drastically.
In Brenda Darnet’s book called Cyberplay, communicating online,” she attributes the words “feeling spiffy,” found in an email of 1993-94 to be some sort of cyber-speak. Obviously Ms. Darnet had not been raised in New England, where the use of those terms was already quite common. In 2001 the Canadian singing group, The Vestibules, released a comedy album called “Get Spiffy!”
In recent times the “Spiffy” part of SpiffY!Search, is an acronym for “Semi-Permeable Inline Free-Form Yahoo!”
[Editor’s note: updated in March of 2019]