Word Histories


By late iast year many people were impatient with the Federal Communications Commission. Howard Stern, the “shock jock” of New York radio broadcasting, had for several years been blatantly flouting FCC rules governing “indecent” programming, but officials were reacting indecisively. “I think they are waffling,” said Terry Rakolta, the founder of Americans for Responsible Television. “They have to be more definitive. . .”Waffle (to equivocate) may come from waugh or waff, an onomatopoeic word meaning “to yelp; a puppy’s yelp” (“Women too throughout the same County barked like big dogges: but the children and little ones waughed as small whelpes”—Philemon Holland, Camden’s Britain, 1610). Waff became the frequentative waffle, “to yelp repeatedly,” which soon came to mean “to talk incessantly, chatter foolishly,” a meaning that presumably led to today’s. It is more likely, however, that the word comes from a different waff a variant of wave, meaning “to wave, cause something to move to and fro” (“With order, if they saw 3 sail in the offing, to make 3 waffs with their colours”— Woodes Rogers, A Cruising Voyage Round the World, 1712). The Scots took up the word and made it into the, again, frequentative waffle, meaning “to waver in the air, flap, flutter” (“The wee gowans [daisies] . . . boo’d [bowed] an’ they beck’d [curtsied], an’ waffled wi’ glee” —Jessie Morton, Clarkson Gray, 1867). From the literal waving came the current sense of metaphorical wavering or vacillating.


Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito ended his search fora bride last January when Masako Owada, a 1 harvard graduate with a budding career as a diplomat in the Japanese Foreign Ministry, accepted his proposal. The New York Times noted that the Prince had earlier been quoted as saying he was looking for someone who “shares my values” and is not interested in “going on a shopping spree at Tiffany’s.” One theory has it that spree (unrestrained indulgence, splurge) originates in the Indo-European root *ghend-, “to seize, take,” from which resulted the Latin word praeda (prey, spoil, booty). From the Latin word came the Gaelic spréidh (cattle) and the Scots spreath or spreagh, “cattle taken as booty; cattle-stealing forays” (“[He was] an old follower of Rob Roy, who had been at many a spreagh with that redoutabie freebooter” — Sir Walter Scott, Familiar Letters, 1808). Spreagh, or its variant spray, then became spree, and its meaning shifted as well, from “rampage” to the milder “splurge.” Alternatively, a spree being nothing if not spirited, the word may come from the Latin spintus (spirit) through the French esprit (spirit; lively wit), which was brought to England in the sixteenth century. Today’s common expression shopping spree did not appear until about thirty years ago and is probably a variant of the term spending spree, which was coined by Aldous Huxley (“We are now squandering the capital of metallic ores and fossil fuels. . . . How long can this spending spree go on?”—Adonis and the Alphabet, 1956).


After a federal court last year ruled against USX (formerly United States Steel) in favor of steelworkers who had lost their jobs just as they were about to qualify for pension benefits, the workers’ lawyer declared, “Right now, those scalawags . . . are drinking their martinis and eating chicken cordon bleu, but they arc not laughing.” Scalawag (a rascal, loafer, reprobate) may ultimately be from the Latin schola (school), which in Old Irish became seal (also meaning “school”) and yielded the derivative scoldc (a scholar, usually one studying in a monastery). Over time scoldcs scholarly associations faded, leaving only the meaning “a tenant of church land.” By the time the word entered the Scottish language, it also meant “a bondservant.” Later, in pre-industrial Scotland, farm laborers were called scolocs or scallags. In America scallag, which doubtless found its way to the New World early in the great ScotsIrish immigrations, became scalawag, a pejorative term probably influenced by wag (a witty person). In the South scalawags were white Republicans and, after the Civil War, southerners who worked with northern carpetbaggers to take advantage of loopholes in the congressional plan to rebuild the South (“This invaluable class is composed ... of ten parrs of unadulterated Andy Johnson Union men, ten of good lord and good devilites, five of spuss and seventyfive of scallowags"—Charleston Mercury, 1862). A scalawag is also a poor, undersized animal considered to be worthless, a sense virtually contemporaneous with the other. This has led some to theorize that scalawag is an alteration of Scalloway, the ancient capital of the Shetland Islands, which are known for their breed of tiny ponies.