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Whiffler

Students of Shakespeare will know of whifflers from Henry V:

The deep-mouth’d Sea,
Which like a mighty Whiffler ’fore the King,
Seems to prepare his way.

Whifflers went in front of a procession to clear spectators from its path. In early times, they would have been men-at-arms, wielding their customary weapons such as javelins or swords to keep back the mob. By the time of Shakespeare, they had taken on a formalised role and by the next century had degenerated into being merely part of the ritual of events such as civic parades. They survived until the middle of the nineteenth century in the procession of the London craft guilds to the Guildhall banquet on Lord Mayor’s Day, in which young freemen called bachelor whifflers carried flags to lead each guild. They lived on to about the same date in Norwich:

In that of the Corporation of Norwich from the Guild-hall to the Cathedral Church, on the Guild-day, the whifflers are two active men very lightly equipped ... bearing swords of lath or latten, which they keep in perpetual motion, “whiffing” the air on either side, and now and then giving an unlucky boy a slap on the shoulders or posteriors with the flat side of their weapons.

The Vocabulary of East Anglia, by Robert Forby, 1830.

In an entry written a century ago, the Oxford English Dictionary finds the word’s origin in the Old English wifle for a spear or battleaxe. But as whiffle also referred to the wind when it blew in puffs or slight gusts, or veered or shifted about (it became a figurative way to describe a shifty or evasive person), it would be as reasonable to assume that it referred to the continual waving of their weapons to encourage hangers-on to stand back. Whifflers in action would certainly have raised a constant whiffle of wind, as Robert Forby implied with his use of whiff, to blow lightly (this last word is also the source of the word in the sense of a brief or faint smell, as in “a whiff of perfume”).

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Thomas Ratcliffe, a contributor to Notes and Queries, recalled this variation:

The art of the whiffler-waffler is still known, though I have not seen the practice for a number of years. Whiffling-waffling was common when I was a boy, and many boys could give very creditable exhibitions of the art. ... Some men were great experts, making the stick twirl in the hands round and about all parts of the body round the head, behind the back, under the thigh, the whiffling-waffling being done as easily with the left as with the right hand. When the exhibition was put of doors the stick was sent whirling high, the performer dancing round a considerable circle before catching it at the right moment of its descent.

We are irresistibly reminded of a drum-major with his mace leading a band in a parade or of an American baton-twirler. There certainly seemed to be a skill to whiffling, to judge from George Borrow, who lamented in The Romany Rye in 1857, “The last of the whifflers hanged himself about a fortnight ago ... from pure grief that there was no further demand for the exhibition of his art, there being no demand for whiffling since the discontinuance of Guildhall banquets.” The modern drum-major may not have his genesis in the ancient passage-clearing art of the whiffler, but parallels persist.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 31 Aug. 2013

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Last modified: 31 August 2013.