23

Scottish dogs used to waff

American voters waffled in 2000

British politicians “waffle on” for hours

And Swedish children eat them on March 25th

Waffle

nowadays has basically three meanings:
Source: Oxford Dictionaries

  1. AmEng, to fail to make up one’s mind
  2. BrEng, waffle on speak or write, especially at great length, without saying anything important or useful
  3. A small crisp batter cake, baked in a waffle iron and eaten hot with butter or syrup.

stack of waffles with maple syrup being poured a customer in a "waffling" restaurant who can't make up his mind U.S

But if we investigate its etymological origins we discover much more.

From Proto-Germanic *weƀaną we obtain the verb weave (900), which has two meanings; (1) "to weave, form by interlacing yarn" (2) "to move from one place to another". From this latter term the name weevil, a small beetle, was probably derived. Weave was also the source for the Old English noun webb which meant "woven fabric, woven work, tapestry", whose meaning was later transformed to web, as in a spider's web (13th C) and cobweb (14th C).

From the the related Middle Low German wāfel the term was loaned to Middle English (1377) and became wafer. The actual woven-like waffles that we eat today arrived in the US with the first Dutch settlers in 1620 on the Mayflower and were originally called Dutch wafers. By 1735 the Dutch wafel gained an extra "f", becoming waffle.

The onomatopoeic waff (17th C) which means to bark or to yelp like a dog is, sad to say, virtually obsolete but its modern-day counterpart, woof (19th C), still thrives. From An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808) by John Jamieson we gleam that since at least 1678, waff and waif meant "the act of waving" and "to fluctuate" whereas waff alone, denoted someone who was worthless.

WAFF 3. Worthless. A waff fellow, one whose conduct is immoral; or whose character is so bad, no one will associate with him

snippet taken from Scottish Dictionary second snippet

But there is no mention of it meaning to yelp or bark incessantly.

According to Random House Dictionary waffle with the BrEng meaning of talking idly, and foolishly without purpose is derived from waff (the yelp sound) and first appeared in print between 1695-1705

However I found in A Glossary of North Country Words, with Their Etymology, ... compiled by John Trotter Brockett, William Edward Brockett (1746) this snippet, which confirms that waffle in northern England was used as a verb meaning to wave and to fluctuate synonymous with wabble and derived from the German weyfelen and Swedish wefta (of which the second sounds very much like wafer to me)

snippet of waff & waffle

Once again there's no mention of it meaning yelp.


Today in Europe, waffles are popular snacks in Belgium; Portugal; France; The Netherlands; Germany, and Sweden, whose inhabitants celebrate Annunciation Day on March 25th by eating waffles. However, in the UK they are rarely eaten for breakfast, or at any time. British people know what waffles are but they are considered primarily, an American treat.

Source:Antique Electric Waffle Irons 1900-1960: A History of the Appliance Industry in 20th Century America (2003)


Questions

  • Have I got the facts straight? I have crossed-reference and triple-checked where possible but nevertheless I may have committed some errors.
  • When was the American to waffle (the intransitive verb, meaning to be unable to make a decision; waver) first used and where? I've read it is connected to the Scottish waff, but I did not find any references to its first use in speech or print.

  • Is there an explanation for the divergence in meaning between the BrEng sense i.e. Lengthy but vague or trivial talk or writing (OED) and its American counterpart? The verb is largely derogatory, which I find particularly curious.

  • And finally, has this divergence narrowed? Are American speakers familiar with the UK sense and vice-versa?


EDIT TO BOUNTY

  1. To clarify, because I realize the wording may have been misinterpreted. Can anyone find an American citation, quote, quotation, excerpt etc. with the term waffle meaning to vacillate dated before 1962?

  2. Not one answer has so far attempted to explain the divergence between the US and the UK meaning of waffle. I know it's not easy, but that's why I've put up 350 points.
    Phew!

  • 1
    Mari-Lou, I'd love to say I'll have the answers in a jiffy (for which I still search occasionally). My gut reaction is that I've not even come across the AmE meaning, so I'd say that the divergence has not narrowed. It's a good question though, which has piqued my enthusiasm, and should keep me quiet for a bit. – Phil M Jones Oct 29 '14 at 10:46
  • 1
    Australians waffle, just as the BrE do. We also eat them, just as the AmE do. Can't say I've ever encountered the AmE usage as a verb down under, though. – long Oct 29 '14 at 12:19
  • 1
    You are missing the waffle as a "grid like pattern" - where the cake and iron get their name. Probably comes from the weave by analogy. – Oldcat Oct 29 '14 at 18:14
  • 3
    I am impressed. The Lawler weight of this post is OVER 9000. And for once that's the actual number. You've outlawlered Lawler himself. Bravo. – RegDwigнt Oct 29 '14 at 23:24
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA A waffle without pockets, or is it wells? is a pancake/hotcake, or if it's really thin, a crepe. That is, it's a thin, even-thickness spread, sweetened batter that is heated until cooked. If it's not sweet, it might be considered a tortilla. – SrJoven Nov 4 '14 at 14:34
6

REVISED

A lesson in the dangers of relying too heavily on Google Ngram (aka mea culpa)

Previously, I posted an Ngram chart illustrating my surprise that waffle used in its verb form seemed to not exist before the late 1950s. When using Ngrams I started with a much wider timescale: 1800 to 2008, I hadn't noticed the tiny bump that appeared sometime in the 1920s. My error, my fault and for that I apologize. Here is the same Ngram updated.

Ngram plotting "waffled"

When I dug a little deeper, I found a quote dated 1913 using waffle in its gerund form. Here is a new Ngram chart with "waffling" included in the search. As you can see, it tells a very different story.

Ngram display with "waffling" included

Notice how waffling dominates the map, making he waffled insignificant and irrelevant.

Furthermore, by sifting through the results on Google books I discovered that the term, waffling, refers to the art of making waffles and can be jokingly called a sport. On top of that, it's often used in the compound noun waffling-irons with and without the hyphen, and its past participle can be used as an adjective, as in a waffled breakfast, waffled toast, waffled potatoes, waffled surface, waffled chiffon, waffled material, waffled leather or a waffled quilt. (Who would have thought being an etymologist could be so exhausting!)

As a result, I still maintain that the question is not one of general reference. The scope for discussion is much wider than simply looking up waffle in Wikipedia.

A British speaker commented:

If someone keeps changing their mind, they are by definition being vague and talking about nothing in particular. There could be other reasons to (hiding something... not knowing what they are talking about, etc) but that doesn't alter the fact that BrEng and AmEng agree that indecisive people waffle.

I believe the difference is more marked than the one suggested by the user. And I'll do my best to explain why.

Collins Dictionary gives this definition

British English: waffle If someone talks or writes a lot without saying anything clear or important, you can call what they say or write waffle. He writes smug, sanctimonious waffle. Word Origin C19: of unknown origin

Merriam-Webster offers

intransitive verb 1: equivocate, vacillate “waffled on the important issues”; also : yo-yo, flip-flop “she waffled when asked what she thought of her sister's new boyfriend”

Origin of WAFFLE
frequentative of obsolete woff to yelp, of imitative origin First Known Use: 1868

1.

I'll include my personal definition of the BrEng sense of the word waffle which I left in a comment to the aforementioned British speaker who argues that there is no discernable difference.

Waffling in BrEng is primarily someone who keeps talking endlessly about nothing in particular, it's like a drone sound, a lot of words being said or written without coming to any conclusion. I wouldn't include hesitation or indecisiveness. The act of waffling could disguise someone's insecurity, as people do have a tendency to rattle on when they are nervous. Some, instead, become tongue-tied

From 1957 a British newspaper clipping (1957)

the term *waffling* is used to describe Labour MPs

“... little darling that ever walked this earth! She's a princess! She's a fairy! She's a — ” The rhapsodist broke off short, and flushed red. “Forgive me,” he said “for waffling like that, but I don't quite know what I 'm doing just at present. Dad, I'm the happiest man that ever lived!”


2.

From The New York Times the AmEng sense

Wishy-washyness, often spelled wishi-washiness, is not synonymous with flip-floppiness. I dealt with flip-flop, both noun and verb, a few months ago, defining the side-switching not so much as a permanent change of mind but with its verb synonym "waffle" (from the Scottish waff, "gust of wind"; nothing to do with the Dutch wafel, "cake baked on a grid").

The American journalist, William Safire, in this excerpt is clearly saying that flip-flop is synonymous with waffle and not with verbosity or excessive wordiness. The journalist continues “The standard English synonym for the flip-flop verb is "vacillate."

Another instance, which illustrates more clearly the difference between AmEng and BrEng use of waffling

Think of how much time you waste waffling between a yes and a no, deciding whom to hire, where to locate your business and how to organize your day. Now there is software that can make your choices easier.

Source: InfoWorld - 15 Aug 1983 - Page 88

A British speaking person may have said “humming hawing” (US hem haw), “wavering” or “dithering” in its place. “Sitting on the fence” is another alternative.

  • The earliest instance I found for "waffling between" is dated 1964 in the Ontario Library Review, Volumes 48-49

His hero is a 30 year old Catholic bachelor waffling between the priesthood and love of a lass, who is, alas, both a protestant and a librarian. This is a readable novel with many droll characters.

The earliest reference I found in Google books with waffled as it is used today is dated 1962 from The U.S. Government Printing Office.

enter image description here enter image description here

It's interesting to note that the term waffled is described as local jargon and in the earlier clipping it is quoted, implying that the term was relatively new and considered almost dialectal.

Conclusions

The findings so far seem to suggest that the verb waffle as used in the UK and in the US is much more recent than any of the references or dictionaries I consulted have suggested. There is no evidence that proves that the AmEng verb existed (at least in print) before the 1950s. Whereas in the UK the earliest instance of waffled, meaning to speak at great length without meaning, is dated 1913.

3

Waffler

The suggested US meaning is found in the glossary of "Westmoreland and Cumberland Dialects" by "Various Writers in the Westmoreland and Cumberland Dialects", published in 1839.

Waffler, A waverer

This is provided in reference to a poem of c.1803 called "Matthew Macree" in the following stanza:

The he wad shek the bull-ring, and brag the heale town,
And to feght, rin or russle, he pat down a crown;
Saint Gworge, the girt champion, o'fame and renown,
Was nobbet a waffler for Matthew Macree.

meaning:

The he would shake the bull-ring, and boast the whole town,
And to fight, run or wrestle, he put down a crown;
Saint George, the great champion, of fame and renown,
Was nothing but a waverer for Matthew Macree.

In this sense, "waverer" appears to mean someone who is physically unsteady, or swaying, from which it is not to great a leap to the more modern meaning of being indecisive, in the same way that "vacillate" is more commonly used to mean being indecisive, than its original meaning of swaying or being unsteady.

Also, ten years earlier, in "A Glossary of North Country Words" by John Trottrer Brockett, published in 1829 is found:

WAFFLE, To wave, to fluctuate. Identical with WABBLE. Sax. Wafian, vacillare. Teut. Weyfelen, fluctuare. Swed, wefta, vibrare.

This links nicely to the Anglo-Saxon dictionary reference below.

I'm in the process of checking some references but I'm fairly confident that "waffling" meaning prattling or talking endlessly without substance may come "whiffling". In "History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons" from 1796 is found "whiffle-whaffling fluff". I want to do some more research to make sure I've not misunderstood the context, but it does seem to be relevant at first inspection.

(end of added portion)

My new favourite reference, Joseph Bosworth's Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language could be of use with reference to all the three meanings of waffle you refer to.

WÆFELS: A covering, cloak, garment

WÆFYLS: A covering

WÆFLAN: To babble, to speak foolishly, to whiffle

WAFIAN: To hesitate, be astonished, be amazed - which doesn't seem very relevant until you see the Latin translations "vacillare" (to vacillate), fluctuare (to fluctuate or float)

WAFOL / WAFUL: Hesitating through astonishment. Again the Latin is more revealing - "vaicllans" (vacillating).

So it could be that the three meanings come from separate Anglo-Saxon roots. WWÆFELS, WÆFYLAN and WAFIAN

  • 1
    Love your definition of the UK waffle "... indecisive people waffle. However, so do middle-managers; so does my mother; so do politicians. That doesn't necessarily mean they aren't decisive, or haven't made up their mind about something: it just means they are excessively verbose with little valuable content in their discourse." – Mari-Lou A Oct 31 '14 at 11:38
  • The A Glossary of North Country Words is the same as " A Glossary of North Country Words, with Their Etymology" which I had already quoted from (see question) and it's dated 1746! (Had to Google its date) But your waffler discovery is great, I would just like to see when it was first used in the States, a clear unambiguous reference (preferably not from a dictionary) but a citation from a newspaper, book, journal etc. I got stuck at 1962, there has to be an earlier instance surely? – Mari-Lou A Nov 3 '14 at 13:23
  • So to waffle---> to waver, was used in the UK and then sailed crossed the Atlantic never to return. Was this in the 19thC or mid 20thC? – Mari-Lou A Nov 3 '14 at 13:31
  • 1
    Ah yes, it is the same book, isn't it! I've seen so many in the last week I've lost track! Now to hunt for vacillatory waffling in the USA (which would make a great Springsteen lyric). – Phil M Jones Nov 3 '14 at 13:42
  • 1
    @Mari-Lou A: waffle would have crossed the Atlantic quite early. There have been people from Scotland in the US since the American colonial days (genealogymagazine.com/scots.html). – TRomano Nov 4 '14 at 12:57
2

Recently visited the Netherlands where the guide at Muiderslot castle referred to the origin of a Dutch phrase "Houd je wafel (or waffel) dicht!" which is translated as "keep your waffle closed". The term apparently derived from children being allowed to cook waffles in a waffling iron over an open fire and being too busy chatting away amongst themselves that there was a risk that the waffles would end up being burnt. The adult would say "keep your waffle closed" as a way of telling them to stop chatting and concentrate on what they are doing. A quick look on google suggests the phrase was widespread in the Netherlands in the C17th so I wonder if the term waffling came into English from that source.

  • Thank you for your contribution, you've added some fresh wood on the fire. Thanks again for reproducing the Dutch idiom in its entirety and explaining its meaning. – Mari-Lou A Apr 12 '17 at 9:06
1
+350

Not an answer, just some clues, perhaps, to the use, "to be noncommittal or inconstant".

Compare: wiffle-waffle, whiffle-waffle

http://books.google.com/books?id=poJBAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA488&dq=%22wiffle%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=b-FUVIWTAtbdsATg-YDwDw&ved=0CEQQ6AEwBjgU#v=onepage&q=%22wiffle%22&f=false

The first (English Dialect Dictionary, Joseph Wright) gives a definition of wiffle-waffle "to whet a scythe", which I understand (perhaps incorrectly?) to involve a back-and-forth motion. Wright finds the attestation on page 141 of The Dialect And Folk-Lore Of Northamptonshire by Thomas Sternberg. London. 1851

Wiffle (whiffle) and waffle (whaffle, woffle) seem to involve swinging or swaying or moving back and forth (literal 'vacillation'); the word wiffle-waffle has among its meanings 'to speak in a meandering manner'. In the American use of 'waffling politicians', they either speak in an evasive manner so as not to be held to an opinion, or they flip-flop and say today the opposite of what they said last week.

The second instance from Dizionario Delle Lingue Italiana Ed Inglese, Giuseppe Marco Antonio Baretti, (1839), gives a definition for whiffle : to swing, to sway back and forth (muoversi ondeggiando...dondolarsi). [But this link was mere lagniappe :-) ]

See also whiffle-whaffle : "a person of unsteady, vacillating character" in
The Dialect of Craven in the West Riding of the County of York (1828).

snippet including the following terms: whiff, whiffle and whiffle-whaffle

P.S. In his A Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect (London, 1868) the Reverend J.C. Atkinson defines waffle as "to waver or vacillate; to be undecided" and refers to Old Norse vöflur (doubt, uncertainty, hesitation).

(more lagniappe) Here we have a description of whiffling-whaffling that shows it was a skill akin to modern American baton-twirling at high-school and university football games.

Here in Fenland Notes and Queries (Cambridgeshire, 1900) we have an attestation of waffling as a kind of deceitfulness ("tricksy, waffling fellow").

And I think we have a 1955 Canadian attestation in the House of Commons Debates, Official Report (Volume 5) where the "slang expression" waffling is explained as follows:

There has been a great deal of "waffling", to use a slang expression. There has been a great deal of indecision and a great deal of uncertainty. No one knows just where he stands.

There looks to be a British-English attestation of the meaning "deliberate evasiveness so as to avoid being held to an opinion" in the record of Parliamentary Debates in the House of Commons for 1953, but I cannot see more than a piece of the paragraph:

...and myself in the art of waffling, but at the present moment I am asking him a direct question and he is not giving me a straight answer. [my emphasis]

And in Medical students and medical sciences: some problems of education in Britain and the United States (Oxford University Press, 1955) we find on page 67:

This last is an important aptitude, and in Britain has received the name of 'waffling'. There are many techniques — the red herring, the evasion, the ambiguity, and so on [my emphasis]

N.B. These last two attestations go to your question about "divergence".

  • 1
    Sorry about the first link, it works here. It gives a definition of wiffle-waffle "to whet a scythe", which I understand (perhaps incorrectly?) to involve a back-and-forth motion. Wiffle (whiffle) and waffle (whaffle, woffle) seem to involve swinging or swaying or moving back and forth (literal 'vacillation'); the word wiffle-waffle has among its meanings 'to speak in a meandering manner'. In the American use of 'waffling politicians', they either speak in an evasive manner so as not to be held to an opinion, or they flip-flop and say today the opposite of what they said last week. – TRomano Nov 2 '14 at 12:25
  • Just providing a link is not a good idea: links to Google Books in particular don't work for everyone. Please provide a transcribed excerpt or a screen shot (with proper attribution to the source work). But if this is not an answer, then it should be really be a comment as you have enough rep for that. Perhaps you could make it an answer? – Andrew Leach Nov 3 '14 at 8:31
  • My rep has been changing here. At first, I couldn't correct a typo in my own answer. I'll copy the content into the answer. – TRomano Nov 3 '14 at 11:43
  • Not sure why. The link in your comment takes me directly to the page. I've tried the link in another browser and it works there too. Here's the base link: books.google.com/… and you should be able to us the "add that book to your library" feature (Free e-book) and then go to the -W- section. – TRomano Nov 3 '14 at 13:12
  • Wright finds the attestation on page 141 of The Dialect And Folk-Lore Of Northamptonshire by Thomas Sternberg. London. 1851. – TRomano Nov 3 '14 at 14:55

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