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Q From Phil Young: What is the origin of the word waddle? I’ve recently read about the famous Confederate captain, James Waddell, who commanded the CSS Shenandoah and apparently had only one leg and weighed around 200lbs. This made me wonder if it was a corruption of his name referring to his gait, although I doubt it.

A It’s a neat guess but you’re right to doubt this as the origin. There’s no connection at all and the verb waddle is known from about three centuries before Captain Waddell’s time.

The first known user is our old friend William Shakespeare, in his play Romeo and Juliet of 1592, in a speech which Juliet’s nurse is trying to explain in an outpouring of muddled exposition that her charge is not yet fourteen, along the way pretty much detailing Juliet’s entire early history. A brief extract from the waterfall of words: “And since that time it is eleven years, for then she could stand alone. nay, by th’rood, she could have run and waddled all about”.

Waddle is most often used of ducks and geese and other wading birds, which is appropriate, since it is an extension of wade by adding the -le ending that indicates an action continually or regularly taken, what grammarians call a frequentative. In that, it joins a long list that includes crackle, crumple, dazzle, hobble, niggle, paddle, sparkle, topple and wriggle.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 9 Aug. 2008

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 9 August 2008.