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Q From Anne Holzman: I unthinkingly apologized for waffling when I couldn’t answer a friend’s question clearly in an e-mail. She asked what I meant. My intended definition showed up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. But is there anything more interesting in the word’s background than that dictionary’s suggestion that it is imitative?

A Presumably you mean by waffle that you were equivocating, writing evasively or using ambiguous language that avoided coming to any definite conclusion? That’s the usual way that Americans use it. We Brits have a slightly different sense: we apply it to speech or writing that goes on at great length but without saying anything that’s important or useful — a subtle distinction.

At about the beginning of the nineteenth century both senses were in use in Britain, though the one that is now usual in the US has since died out over here. The verb seems to have derived from an older form waff with the ending -le, creating what grammarians call a frequentative verb, one that implies a continuing or repeated action.

It’s waff that your dictionary would have suggested was imitative, since that was once a dialect word meaning to yelp, especially of a puppy (so it’s in the same group as yap and woof). The suggestion is that somebody is making a continual yapping noise but, like an annoying small dog, not communicating anything very useful.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 23 Feb. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 23 February 2002.