Thursday, July 16, 2015

Even more word-related etymologies

Even more word-related etymologies

The July 9 & July 16 posts took a look at word histories of words that somehow deal with words. This week’s post is the third in the series.

When someone (in particular a politician) can’t seem to make up his/her mind on an important topic, s/he is said to be a waffler. Though it’s reasonable to assume this has something to do with a waffle having two sides, the can’t—make-up-one’s-mind sort of waffle & the tasty-with-butter-&-syrup waffle have completely different origins. The latter showed up in English in 1744 from German through Dutch, with its grandmother Proto-Germanic word wabila meaning web or honeycomb. It’s related to the word weave. Political waffling, though, is probably imitative of a dog’s bark & showed up in English in the 1600s, meaning to yelp or bark like a puppy. In time, the term grew to mean to speak foolishly, & in 1803 landed on today’s meaning, to vacillate or equivocate.

Books, plays, movies & speeches are all constructed of words, & on those sad occasions when they don’t do well, such things are said to have laid an egg. Etymologists are presently duking it out over two posited sources for this one. Theory one: in cricket or other games, when a team scores nothing, the zero resembles an egg, thus, the team that falls flat has laid an egg. Theory two: when a hen lays an egg, she makes a big fuss, clucking with pride at her accomplishment, but none of her compadres are impressed. I’ll be sure to keep an eye on the battle & will report immediately with breaking news on this front.

The news is delivered in words. An incorrect, though clever, folk etymology suggests that the word news is an acronym standing for all the information from the north, east, south & west. Actually, the word news came through French from the Latin word nova, new, arriving in English in the 1300s & meaning new things.

A person who is compelled to share his/her opinions is a kibitzer. This word showed up in English in 1927 & came from German through Yiddish. The Yiddish word, kibitsen, meant to offer gratuitous advice as an outsider, while the German word meant to look on at cards. The German meaning was inspired by folktales involving a small shorebird, the kiebitz, whose fictional habit involved interfering in card games by sitting on a card player’s shoulder & muttering unwanted instructions. The word kiebitz appears to be an imitation of the call of the kiebitz, or lapwing.

I’m hoping some of you might be willing to share some kibitzing regarding all this. If so, please do so in the comments below.


  1. Well...even though I have never heard it before, I want news to come from North, East, West and South. Because it makes wonderful, kind of whimsical sense.And waffling going from yelping to speaking foolishly to protecting ones ass, well, it all kind of sounds like the same thing to me. And we are in for a bunch of it!

  2. Christine, you are so right that we are heading into SWS (Serious Waffling Season). Thanks for coming by.