Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Papa is a mean old waffle

     "Waffle," I said, one morning at breakfast a couple weeks ago, as our hostess passed around these delicately browned beauties. "Now there's an interesting word. I wonder where it's from?"
     Out came the smart phones, several at the same time, like Western gunslingers on the draw — I've noticed that people are rapidly losing whatever inhibitions they may have once had about consulting their phones on a moment's notice, even at meals, checking them when a question arises and often when one doesn't. I imagine someday soon it'll be rare to ever put them away.
    "It sounds Dutch," I said quickly, guessing, trying to lay out a claim before technology revealed the truth. Like placing a small wager: I'll put $2 on the Netherlands.
    Up popped the e-definition: "a crisp cake of batter baked in a waffle iron" and this etymology, dating to 1744: "Dutch wafel."
    But there was more.
    As a verb, waffle means "to fail to make up one's mind" (not how I would define it. I would say it is closer to "vacillate, waver between two different courses of action.") 
     But the second definition led me to play one of my favorite etymological games: connect the meanings. Is there a link between "waffle" the foodstuff and "waffle" the politician's friend? And which came first?
     The Oxford English Dictionary defines waffle as "a kind of batter-cake, baked in a waffle-iron, and eaten hot with butter or molasses" (do the Brits not use maple syrup? Poor blighters) and traces "waffle" to "wafer"—obvious, though I had never considered it before. A footnote cites the source of wafer as the Teutonic, wabe which, to this day, means "honeycomb" in German. The Shorter Oxford adds a wonderful bit of US slang, "waffle stomper" for a boot with a ridged sole. 
     My 1978 full OED only offers waffle as a verb meaning "to yelp" but nothing about going back and forth. The 1993 New Shorter OED elaborates "of a dog, yap, yelp"  then pushes on to "waver, vacillate, equivocate," which makes me think it's a fairly recent usage. The OED traces waffle the verb to the Scottish, "waff," which means flap and flutter in the wind, so the path to waffling as indecision is obvious. The Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English ponders the connection, defining waffle as an aircraft term, "to be out of control" and "to fly in a damaged condition and/or uncertainty," dating it to the Royal Air Force around 1925 and wondering "Hence (?) to dither."
     Two different routes then, the breakfast treat arriving through the Netherlands, tracing back to the honey-loving Teutons (though it should be noted the French "gaufre," sounds awfully similar, and dates to the 12th century) while the personality flaw goes back through Scotland, evoking the fluttering sound of pennants. ("Waffle" and "wave" share the same heritage).
    Though both terms disappear quite quickly—no "waffle" in either Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary or Samuel Johnson's great 1755 Dictionary.  So no common ancestor for both breakfast treat and rhetorical blunder, though allowing a similar expression to stand-in, I found both crisp batter cake and inconsistency mingling in a single passage in the Second Act of Shakespeare's Henry V, written about 1599: "Trust none;" Pistol tells his wife. "For oaths are straws, men's faiths are wafer-cakes."
    Ain't that the truth? The Riverside Shakespeare interprets "wafer-cakes" as "fragile" as in easily-broken, but that's very close in meaning to wavering.
       There are a few obscure definitions worth noting. The Dictionary of American Slang defines "waffle" first as "a difficult or dangerous task" and then moves on to include "A disliked person, esp. an old person with wrinkled skin" and offers this 1934 gem from Damon Runyon: "[her] papa is a mean old waffle," noting that the usage was "never common." 
    Well, maybe it should be common. It's never too late. Some words slumber until needed. A "cursor" in my OED is defined as "a part of a mathematical, astronomical, or surveying instrument, which slides backwards and forwards." Where it stayed, esoterically—chiefly to describe the clear plastic sleeve on a slide rule—until about 30 years ago, when we all started using flashing electronic cursors every day. So as the Baby Boom proceeds into its senescence, I have a feeling we're going to be encountering a lot of mean old waffles, and will need a solid, unfamiliar, mildly-derogatory, slightly-humorous term to describe them.


  1. Neil, was there a winner this week in the contest. You didn't say if anyone was correct.
    I tried the email, but it was returned by Gmail as not a working address.

    1. There was. I thought I announced it. Let me check.

  2. These old waffles will be Cursors, of course.

  3. Going back to your second paragraph, I noticed on a recent trip to Italy that people in restaurants, particularly tourists, tended to consult their phones all during the meal. A couple might be engaged in conversation, but evidently about something each was seeing on his or her respective screens.

    I suppose it's the way of the world and pointless to regret...but I do. I myself decline to carry a phone that's smarter than I am, but am, I suppose, in a declining minority.

  4. I'm always waffling between buying a new waffle iron or continuing to eat frozen Kellogg's Eggo waffles. I hate to buy one, though, because it's so special eating a homemade waffle at a restaurant or hotel. (Except those single-waffle do-it-yourself irons in hotels never cook them long enough unless you keep them in for two cycles.)

  5. Hey Neil, Fun to read all this since as you know, our daughter Lizzi and her fiancé are in the pancake and waffle business, Birch Benders Micro-Pancakery, based in Colorado. www.buypancakes.com We think about waffles a lot but I learned a lot here! xo

  6. Bill Savage: Is that some sort of riddle?
    Neil Steinberg: Carry on, sir.

    As a past winner of Every goddamn day contest, we are all lucky to have Mr. Steinberg's enormous talent and generous spirit. I won't spoil the rest; Neil knows what he is doing.

    --A loyal reader.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.