give it a whirl, done to a turn, muffed up, waffling

Created date

July 26th, 2019

Give it a whirl

This one is surprisingly old, dating back to the late nineteenth century. American in origin, we use “give it a whirl” in reference to the act of trying something out.

Despite some differences in opinion on the root of its origin (i.e., a reference to the spinning of a roulette wheel, the spinning of a whirly gig children’s toy, even the spinning of a dance partner), the most credible explanation is actually mechanical.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many machines utilized something called a “fly wheel”—a spoked metal wheel connected to a rotating shaft. In order to start the large farm tractors of the early twentieth century, one would have to give the fly wheel a good “whirl” to get the engine going. 

That said, giving the wheel “a whirl” was an attempt at starting something up. In time, the process evolved from literal to figurative and refers to most any instance where we give something a try.

“I never went ice skating, so I thought I might give it a whirl.”

(Done) to a turn

“(Done) to a turn” takes us back to the taverns of old England, when historic greats like diarist Samuel Pepys frequented London’s watering holes in search of ale and good conversation.

Today, when we say that something has been “done to a turn,” it means that someone managed to do it perfectly. But in Pepys’s day (1660s), it had a literal connection to the cooking process.

Perhaps the most common tavern fair at the time would have been various cuts of meat (beef, venison, etc.) placed on a spit and rotated over a fire. The rotation was very important to the quality of the final product.

If the meat cooked up perfectly, it was said to be “done to a turn” in reference to the spit’s rotation. The phrase is still a metaphor for perfection.

“The woodwork on these shelves is outstanding. The carpenter did his job to a turn.”

Muff (muff up)

This is one of the last things anyone wants to do. If you’ve “muffed up,” you’ve fumbled, made a mistake.

The idiom comes from the games of baseball and cricket, and is a reference to the large, cylindrical fur cuffs on women’s coats. If a player happens to miss an otherwise easy catch, he’s playing as if he has fur muffs on his hands. 

He “muffed up.” 

Today, the phrase is used to describe just about any gaffe or error.

“The book’s copy editor really muffed up. There are typos on every page.”

Waffle/waffling

If you watch any of the cable news networks, this term will probably be painfully familiar. And no, it has nothing to do with the food.

When someone “waffles,” they shift back and forth on an issue, changing their position based on how they gauge public sentiment. It’s a most disingenuous habit, and one that has come to define Washington politics.

The term comes from the English word “waff,” which means to waver. Eventually, the “waff” evolved into “waffle,” which we still use in reference to the act of straddling an issue or changing one’s position on it.

“A politician who waffles on important issues cannot be trusted.”

 

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