It hardly needs saying — but bear with me here — that the common workaday (working-class, as it were) words of our language are used more frequently and in far more ways than the more specialized and showboat words like brachycephalic and leucistic and defenestrate.
We speak now of words like junk and stuff and handle and thing, box and bag and door and shelf and cloth and so on. I’m suggesting that we consider here the ordinary words of everyday conversation, spoken by folks who are just trying to get through the day, get through the week, get their kid to school, and so on.
These ordinary words, words of few syllables, tend to have multiple and shifting meanings. They seem both to be ancient and yet elastic and evolving.
Let’s look at two examples: handle and stuff.
From Merriam-Webster: a part that is designed especially to be grasped by the hand; something that resembles a handle; name; also nickname; hand; the total amount of money bet on a race, game, or event; a means of understanding or controlling <can’t quite get a handle on things>.
Then there’s the Urban Dictionary (eliminating near-duplicate definitions): a 1.75 liter (half-gallon) bottle of liquor or other alcohol. Often has a handle or grip on the side for easy access; one’s online alias or nickname; to take care of something; to get something done: take care of finish complete get done accomplish
We hesitate to use the Urban Dictionary here! Take a look yourself — if you’re brave. The OED has 11 or so definitions for the noun form, 15 or so for the verb. The old Century Dictionary — online here — has 8 or so meanings for stuff as a noun, 10 or so as a verb. We say “or so”because there are variants and sub-definitions and it’s easy to get lost in the lexical jungle.
: materials, supplies, or equipment used in various activities: as a obsolete : military baggage b : personal property
: material to be manufactured, wrought, or used in construction <clear half-inch pine stuff — Emily Holt>
: a finished textile suitable for clothing; especially : wool or worsted material
a : literary or artistic production b : writing, discourse, talk, or ideas of little value : trash
a : an unspecified material substance or aggregate of matter <volcanic rock is curious stuff> b : something (as a drug or food) consumed or introduced into the body by humans c : a matter to be considered <the truth was heady stuff> <long-term policy stuff> d : a group or scattering of miscellaneous objects or articles <pick that stuff up off the floor>; also : nonphysical unspecified material <conservation and … all kinds of good stuff — Eric Korn>
fundamental material : substance <the stuff of greatness> b : subject matter <a teacher who knows her stuff>
: special knowledge or capability <showing their stuff>
spin imparted to a thrown or hit ball to make it curve or change course b : the movement of a baseball pitch out of its apparent line of flight : the liveliness of a pitch <greatest pitcher of my time … had tremendous stuff — Ted Williams>
For additional meanings and innendo, we turn to the musical sphere.
“Stuff” is used in a variety of ways. There’s Blind Willie McTell’s “You Can’t Get Stuff No More” (sample here) where “stuff” is liquor. For Bobby, “stuff” is sometimes knowledge or expertise: “Some of you women you really know your stuff”. “Handle” is used in a variety of ways.
Then of course there’s the jazz violinist/vocalist Hezekiah Leroy Gordon Smith, better known as “Stuff” Smith. Listen closely to his most famous song, “You’se a Viper” and you might figure out where he got that handle!