Ask Artie #6 – Waffling.

Artie Q. PebbletonAsk Artie, Linguistics!

Artie,
Do you know whether the word “waffle” – which, according to Dictionary.com, means “to speak or write equivocally” or “to talk foolishly or without purpose; idle away time talking” – has, or has ever had, anything to do with the type of waffles we eat?
Dictionary.com suggests that the origin of the word came from “waff” – to wave about, flutter, waver, or be hesitant. If this is the case, does the word for the type of waffles we eat have the same origin? And finally, if so, what does waving, fluttering, wavering, and being hesitant have to do with breakfast food? That’s certainly some food for thought, isn’t it?
Thanks!
Wondering About Waffles

 

Dear WAW,

This is a fun one!  As it turns out, the edible waffle and the verb to waffle are unrelated.  They’re homonyms (from the Greek homo-, the same, and -onym,  name) – words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation, but have different meanings*.

So, no – the waffles we eat and the waffling we do is unrelated; the words took a convergent evolutionary path, though.  The delicious waffles that go in our mouths come from the Dutch word wafel (as in stroopwafel, thin cookies filled with syrup).  Wafel is derived from an older word that gave us wafer; a wafer is a thin cookie or biscuit made from a batter – you make one by pouring the batter onto heated iron molds.  The word waffle, in this sense, has been around in English since the 1740s, where it is first attested in the glorious phrase “wafel frolic”, an event which I can only assume was the greatest party ever.  Perhaps they played Word Frolic! Village Idiom while they made waffles (that would make it an even better party.).  I believe that is what they call a shameless plug, in the industry.

The waffling that leaves our mouthshowever, when we waver and equivocate, is unrelated, like I said.  I cross-checked the Dictionary.com definition with the Oxford English Dictionary (and, I’m sorry, Dictionary.com people, I privilege the OED over you.).  Waffle-the-verb apparently comes from waff, yes, but the OED says waff is originally supposed to represent a puppy’s barking; we’d spell this as woof today, but it’s attested in 1570 as woff, in 1610 as waugh.   Over time, the verb to waff took on a sort of connotation of fearful indecision, as in this usage from 1873:  “A little shrewish shrill bark, speedily changed into an apologetic whiffling and whoffling.”  By 1936, we have this: ” Nanny would wuffle on, and make me change my stockings.”   By 1976, the word has taken on a standardized spelling and its current meaning: ” She defends the board against suggestions that it waffled on the issue because of political pressure.”  If the breakfast food and the verb have any connection, it’s probably that the verb took on the spelling of the other as its meaning standardized, but beyond that, I’m afraid they’re unrelated, WAW.

Finally, there seems to be a kind of Unified Theory of Comedy that says that words with the letter k in them (as well as b and p) are inherently funnier than words without them, that Bertram is a funnier name than Stanley, or kumquat or potato are funnier words than apple or sausage.  But I choose to throw a wrench into this idea, because I’m pretty confident that waffle is a funnier word than pancake.  Take that, Comedy Establishment!  I think w’s and f’s can be funny, too!  Weigh in in the comments – which words do you find inherently funny?

Yours in learning,

– Artie

* When words share the same pronunciation (regardless of their spelling), they’re homophones (same sound), like reed and read and Reid.  When they share the same spelling (regardless of their pronunciation), they’re homographs (written the same), like sow (as in sowing seeds) and sow (as in a lady pig).  Homonyms are both of those things at the same time.