Whiffler – Friday’s Word of the Day Haiku

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Happy Friday! Today’s Dictionary.com Word of the Day is “Whiffler”. The pop up meme for today’s word defines whiffler as “a person who frequently shifts opinions, attitudes, interests, etc. You know, your basis politician!

But as is the case with most words, there is more to the story. Oh yeah, there definitely is. A quick survey of other dictionaries revealed a few more facets to this fun to say word.

Whiffler Definitions
Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary

  1. Whiffler An officer who went before procession to clear the way by blowing a horn, or otherwise; hence, any person who marched at the head of a procession; a harbinger.”Which like a mighty whiffler ‘fore the king,
    Seems to prepare his way.”
  2. Whiffler One who plays on a whiffle; a fifer or piper.
  3. Whiffler One who whiffles, or frequently changes his opinion or course; one who uses shifts and evasions in argument; hence, a trifler.”Every whiffler in a laced coat who frequents the chocolate house shall talk of the constitution.”
  4. Whiffler(Zoöl) The golden-eye.

Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  1. n-whiffler A piper or fifer.
  2. n-whiffler A herald or usher; a person who leads the way, or prepares the way, for another: probably so called because the pipers (see piper,1) usually led the procession.
  3. n-whiffler One who whiffles; one who changes frequently his opinion or course; one who uses shifts and evasions in argument; a fickle or unsteady person.
  4. n-whiffler A puffer of tobacco; a whiffer.
  5. n-whiffler The whistlewing, or goldeneye duck.

I discovered that there are two different references relating to the origin of the word, depending on the definition applied. First, around 1530-40, a whiffler was defined as an armed attendant who cleared the way for a procession derived from the Old English wifle or wifel for spear or  battle-ax. Later, between 1600 – 1610 the moniker ‘Whiffler’ was applied to a person who frequently shifts opinions, vacillates or is evasive in an argument. Somewhere in the time between these two definitions, some suggest because whifflers who wielded flags or spears stirred up “whiffles of wind”, whiffle came to be defined  as  wind that blows in puffs or slight gusts, or veered or shifted about. This may explain how the definition morphed from armed attendant to bloviating bag of wind (aka one who is shifty or evasive, or a trifler), but there is more to the story of this word. It is also used synonymously with the word piper, as in one who plays a fife. Still more wind references.

I also happened upon the recollection of 20th century Thomas Ratcliffe, a contributor to Notes and Queries who wrote about the “art of the Whiffle-Waffler”. It was apparently a common art, or sport as I would call it, where boys and men would twirl sticks with their hands, around their bodies and heads, behind their backs, under their thighs and high up in the air, catching them with great precision. Uh…sounds a bit like baton twirling to me. 🙂 Apparently it was a classy “thing” back in the day and an art practiced exclusively by men. At any rate, the “art” of whiffle-waffling apparently died out in the mid 19th century. There is a sad story penned by George Borrow in his work The Romany Rye in 1857 that states, “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 article I read on the topic also encouraged one to imagine the drum major or field commander of a marching band who leads with a baton or military mace. While not directly related, the author suggested that we can imagine the two side by side, an armed attendant leading a royal entourage and a baton wielding band leader leading a drum corps.

So there you have it. Whiffler and its many iterations and applications over the years…except for just one teeny, tiny, little thing. There’s more.

Whiffler can also be another name for the Goldeneye long-tailed duck or Whistlewing, so called because of the whistling sound that it makes when it flies. Ok…related to the wind…that fits. But what does a duck have to do with the original Dictionary.com definition? Except maybe to say… “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is probably a duck.”

I better just get to my haiku’s (I have two of them for you today)…and wish you a happy weekend!

Whifflers

A shifty whiffler
spinning alternative facts
loves gullible fools

Some whifflers whiffle
while some others may waffle
unless they’re a duck

kat – 10 February 2017


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