Q From Toni Savage and Jill Williams: Someone just emailed me to ask about the expression piffy on a rock bun. I Googled it and it does seem to exist, and basically refers to the idea of feeling ‘left out’ like ‘piffy on a rock bun (or cake)’. But who or what in the heck is piffy?
A It’s a real expression all right. It is yet another example of a curious Northern English expression, in the same category as big girl’s blouse, all mouth and trousers and I’ll go to the foot of our stairs.
Culinary footnotes first, for those who don’t know the comestible in question: a rock bun, despite its name, is actually a cake — the more common British English term is rock cake. Both terms refer to the same item — small currant cakes, made with minimal liquid, that have a hard, rough surface that looks a bit rock-like.
It has featured in the ITV soap Coronation Street, set in Manchester, and is known in that city and other North Country areas. It turns up especially in irritated statements, like this one I found online: “I simply can’t believe that I’m being made to stand here like piffy on a rock bun until some barmaid notices I’m gasping for a pint”.
Nigel Rees, in Oops, Pardon Mrs Arden! says an early form, known from the 1930s, is “sitting here like Piffy” or “sitting like Piffy on a rock bun”. It seems to be a humorous echo of “sitting like Patience on a monument”. As you say, it refers to a person who is being left out, ignored, or kept hanging about pointlessly. (Americans might say that they are sitting “like a bump on a log”, though this suggests somebody who is stupidly silent rather than one who is being ignored.)
Where it comes from is quite unknown and in particular we have no idea who or what piffy was. My guess is that it comes from a music-hall or other popular entertainment catchphrase now lost to us.