Waffles, weaving and bees

[Now with added wasps.]

You can learn all kinds of things on Twitter, especially if you follow the right people.

I recently started following Språkrådet, the Norwegian Language Council—mainly because they’re happy to answer usage questions on Twitter and because learning Norwegian without the help of a course or tutor means I have lots of questions. (I also use their online dictionary a lot, especially for things like checking genders of nouns.)

Today they tweeted a link to a short article on their website, about the word vaffel, which as you’d expect is Norwegian for waffle. Apparently a new children’s TV series has just launched, with waffles in its title.

Anyway their explanation of the origin of vaffel was interesting enough for me to want to share it. Since most people I want to share it with don’t read Norwegian, I thought I’d better try to translate it. Here’s the relevant paragraph.

Vaffel er opphavelig fra lavtysk og har det samme opphavet som ordet Wabe, som betyr ’vokskake i bikube’. Ordet henger sammen med å veve fordi vokskaka ser ut som mønsteret i en vev. Rutemønsteret i vafler ligner på dette mønsteret, og slik fikk vaflene navnet sitt.

My translation:

Vaffel is derived from Low German and has the same root as the word Wabe, which means “honeycomb in a beehive”. The word is related to å veve ["to weave"]  since honeycombs look like the pattern in a fabric. The pattern of squares in waffles resembles this pattern, and thus waffles got their name.

Is it OK to assume the same goes for weave and waffle in English? A quick look in the OED and in the Språkrådet dictionary reveals that

  • English waffle comes from Dutch waffel, which it’s hard to imagine being unrelated to vaffel or its Old German root.
  • English weave comes from “Old English wefan, of Germanic origin”, while Norwegian veve comes from Norse vefa. Again it’s hard to imagine that there’s no connection.

So, short of doing a linguistics course, I think it’s safe to assume that the English words waffle and weave have similar origins to the Norwegian ones vaffel and veve, and that the explanation of the Norwegian words is also true for the English ones.

So there you have it:

  • Honeycombs have a regular pattern reminiscent of something woven, so were given a name related to weaving.
  • The pattern of holes used for storing honey, syrup, jam etc. in a waffle just before eating is reminiscent of the pattern of holes in a honeycomb, which bees use for pretty much the same purpose.
  • waffles got their name from honeycombs, and indirectly from weaving.

Addendum: wasps

(Sept. 2012)

And now wasps enter the equation, though possibly by another weaving-related route. Today I had to look up the word veps which is what they’re called in Norwegian. The online dictionary I use is really a pair of dictionaries which can be searched simultaneously: Bokmålsordboka and Nynorskordboka. (Bokmål and Nynorsk are the two standardised forms of written Norwegian.) Here’s what they both say about vepswith my translations. (You should probably trust the first translation more than the second, since the variety of Norwegian which I know is Bokmål, not Nynorsk.)

Bokmålsordboka:

veps (beslektet med veve) insekt av  familien Vespidae [ . . . ]
wasp (related to weave) insect from the family Vespidae [ . . . ]

Nynorskordboka:

veps (kanskje samanheng med veve, med tanke på korleis bolet blir laga) 1. orden av årevengja insekt; Hymenoptera [ . . . ]
wasp (maybe connected with weave, considering how the nest is made) 1. order of veined-winged insects; Hymenoptera [ . . . ]

So, weaving enters into it again, but this time it might be because of the idea of weaving a nest . . . or is it because of a connection with bees?

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