The case of Mr Fluffy: a proper name becomes a word

by Julia Robinson 

In a general dictionary (unless it is an encyclopedic dictionary), proper names, trade names, and encyclopedic terms do not usually appear as entries. Only those that have become lexicalised—that is, those that have become accepted into the vocabulary of a language—are included. In Australian English there are many such terms. For example, Vegemite, Esky, Darwin, Barry Crocker, Bondi, Nellie Melba, and the Melbourne Cup have all become part of the lingo with extended meanings and uses beyond their original sense. They form compounds and phrases (happy little Vegemite, Darwin stubby, a Melbourne Cup field), become generic terms (esky), form rhyming slang (have a Barry Crocker), and are used allusively (shoot through like a Bondi tram, do a Melba).

A Mr Fluffy ad for loose-fill asbestos insulation

Dirk Jansen’s ad for loose-fill asbestos insulation, 1960s

This year one name that may be taking the lexical leap into the Australian vocabulary is Mr Fluffy. There can be few people living in and around the Australian Capital Territory who have not heard of Mr Fluffy. It is the name given to a former Canberra businessman, Dirk Jansen, in relation to the home-insulation business he operated in the 1960s and 1970s. He advertised his product, loose-fill asbestos, in local newspapers from 1968: ‘New “Asbestosfluff”. The perfect thermal insulating material. … It sprays onto ceiling area quickly and cleanly.’ (Canberra Times, 30 March 1968) Unfortunately the product was amosite, an extremely carcinogenic form of asbestos. Blown into ceiling spaces it can migrate through cracks, holes, ducts, and wall spaces into the living areas of a house, and the microscopic fibres once breathed can cause cancers such as lung cancer and mesothelioma decades later.

More than a thousand houses in Canberra and Queanbeyan (and a number further afield) were insulated this way. In the 1980s a government clean-up campaign attempted to remove all the loose-fill asbestos from those houses identified in Canberra. In relation to the clean-up, the name Mr Fluffy made its debut in print in the early 1990s:

Jansen or his assistant would climb on to the roof, remove a few tiles, and simply spray in about 250 pounds of loose and fluffy asbestos, covering the top of the ceiling to a depth of about two and a half inches. … Today Jansen is known to people in the asbestos removal industry as Mr Fluffy. (Independent Monthly, June 1991)

The ghost of Mr Fluffy blew back into town with the Government announcement this week of an inquiry into the management of the ACT’s asbestos-removal program. … If the result does not banish the curse of Mr Fluffy, a more effective exorcism may be required. (Canberra Times, 16 January 1993)

In the second example, ‘the ghost of Mr Fluffy’ has a strongly allusive feel (and in 1993 Dirk Jansen was still alive). It hints at the beginning of a meaning beyond the original sense.

Removing loose-fill asbestos in Canberra

Removing loose-fill asbestos. Source: Canberra Times

However it is not until 2013, when a Canberra house was found to have been missed in the clean-up program, that Mr Fluffy takes on a new meaning:

Mr Corbell’s spokeswoman said, ‘While it is unfortunate that homes were missed, it is important to note that neither the ACT nor Commonwealth Government gave any assurances that all homes containing Mr Fluffy would be identified during the program.’ (Canberra Times, 2 July 2013)

Here Mr Fluffy is used as a noun meaning ‘loose-fill asbestos insulation’. Over the last year this usage has solidified:

A young person  … had been assisted to purchase a home that later turned out to have Mr Fluffy. (Canberra Times, 13 August 2014)

Loose-fill asbestos in a roof space. Source: Canberra Times

Loose-fill asbestos in a roof space. Source: Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia

In 2014 it became clear that, despite the earlier asbestos removal program, all houses originally containing the product posed a serious and continuing health risk. As the issue of contamination and its consequences exploded in 2014, so the number of compounds formed on the noun grew: Mr Fluffy home, Mr Fluffy house, Mr Fluffy crisis, Mr Fluffy asbestos, Mr Fluffy homeowner, Mr Fluffy taskforce. A sample of headlines from the Canberra Times this year demonstrates the process of lexicalisation that has occurred:

Class action threat over Mr Fluffy;

Mr Fluffy found under house;

Pressure put on homeowners over Mr Fluffy;

No mass demolition of Mr Fluffy houses;

Mr Fluffy victims call for crisis support;

Mr Fluffy homes fetch reduced prices.

 There is evidence too that the term is being abbreviated:

Nearly a quarter of the Fluffy cohort, about 220 houses, have changed hands three or more times over the 22 years. (Canberra Times, 6 September 2014)

… how much should be paid to families who bought their house at a discount in the past few months, knowing it was a Fluffy. (Canberra Times, 17 September 2014)

The health consequences of exposure to loose-fill asbestos are calculated to peak over the next thirty years. More urgently, Territory, State, and Federal governments are faced with the difficult and costly question of what to do with the thousand-plus contaminated houses—buy, demolish, remediate, compensate? It is an issue that will not go away, and it means that the term Mr Fluffy is unlikely to be short-lived. Sadly, the original advertising for the product—‘AsbestosFluff retains effectiveness forever’—seems prophetic.

Preparing a house for asbestos removal. Source: Canberra Times

Preparing a house for asbestos removal. Source: Canberra Times