waffle. 1. To equivocate, to write or speak evasively, or to use ambiguous language so as to avoid commitment. To be indecisive or to change one's mind. 2. To write or speak at great length without saying anything that is important or useful.
Substitute New York Times language columnist Jack Rosenthal's dog says “EER-ruff; Little Orphan Annie's dog says arf, and dogs in general say bow-wow.” Marjorie Garber reports that “Chinese dogs say ‘Wung-wung,’ Spanish dogs ‘Jau-jau,’ French dogs ‘Ouah-ouah,’ and Israeli dogs ‘Hav-hav.’” Onomatopoeia is in the ear of listener, or at the least it is language-dependent. At some point in time, British dogs must have said “Waff-waff.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces the verb “waffle” back to an earlier word, “waff” or “waugh,” meaning to yelp like a small dog or a puppy. This meaning for waffle predates the noun for “a kind of batter-cake, baked in a waffle-iron, and eaten hot with butter and molasses.” The OED provides a nice alliterative quotation about “whaffling whelps that can bark and not bite.”
So, etymologically speaking, to waffle is to bark like a dog. While I understand that the second meaning—to go on and on and on—is alive and well in the U.K., it is primarily the first meaning that one sees employed in the U.S. Not that the definitions are unrelated: I can appreciate that talking at length and saying little might be a good strategy for equivocation.
In the early 1990s President Bill Clinton was famously depicted as a waffle by satirist and cartoonist Gary Trudeau. Trudeau saw Clinton as following the polls and not principle. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was cast similarly by the Republicans in 2004, though called a “flip-flopper” instead. Waffling is a matter of indecision or deliberate ambiguity, while flip-flopping involves actual changes in defined positions. Both may be seen as signs of opportunism or lack of principle.
1. Rosenthal, Jack. 1985. From Arf to Zap. New York Times Magazine Jun 30. Accessed Jul 31 2008 from http:// select.nytimes.com/ search/ restricted/ article?res= F30A1EFC355D0 C738FDDAF0894DD484D81.
2. Garber, Marjorie B. 1996. Dog Love. New York: Simon & Schuster. 99.
3. For a longer list of how different languages speak of the dog's bark see Written Sound.
4. The Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. 3d ed. Accessed from http://dictionary.oed.com.
5. Quinion, Michael. 2002. Waffling. World Wide Words. Accessed Jul 31 2008 from http:// www.worldwidewords.org/ qa/ qa-waf1.htm.