I recently ran across “wifty” in a review and was so taken aback I assumed it must be a typo; my wife had never heard of it either. But I investigated and discovered that it’s a real word — here’s the OED entry (from September 2016):

wifty, adj.

Etymology: Origin uncertain; apparently < a first element of uncertain identity (perhaps compare wift v., whift adj., whiff v.¹) + -y suffix¹.

colloquial (chiefly North American).

 1. Vague, imprecise; (of thinking, argument, etc.) unclear; muddle-headed, scatterbrained; fuzzy.

1918 G. Frankau One of Them 83 Listless she sat through lunch, and introspective; Heard..Her mother’s wifty social chitter-chatter.
1970 Delaware County (Pa.) Daily Times 30 Nov. 18/1 He didn’t play before because he was mixed up in one of the whifty groups who think football is for sissies.
1991 C. Paglia Sex, Art, & Amer. Culture 226 Spoiled, wifty, middle-class academics who would be the first to shriek for the police if a burglar or rapist came through the window.
2001 S. Orlean Bullfighter checks her Makeup (2002) 5 Sometimes when he talks about this, it sounds as ordinary and hard-boiled as a real estate appraisal; other times it can sound fantastical and wifty and achingly naive.

 2. Light-headed, muzzy, confused.

1973 McCall’s Dec. 108/2 Sometimes she was sharp as a razor, sometimes wifty, sometimes she had to go to the infirmary with a ‘sinking spell’.
2004 K. Michaels This can’t be Love x. 123 He was too numb to feel pain. Wifty. Out of it.

I confess I don’t understand the distinction between the two senses, and I don’t know how they decided which citations to put in which category, but the general sense is reasonably clear. It’s unusual for me to be so completely unfamiliar with a colloquial term that’s “chiefly North American” and that’s been around since before I was born, but there you go: semper aliquid novi. Do you know this word, and if so do you use it? Is it geographically restricted? (It’s not in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, so it’s definitely colloquial rather than slang.)


  1. New to me as well. I think I get the distinction though: sense 1 is a habitual way of thinking/arguing, sense 2 is how you get when you’re concussed.

  2. Ah, that makes sense.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    Can’t say I recall ever hearing it, although maybe I could have heard it and decoded it in context w/o it registering in my permanent memory as a novel lexeme? It certainly could be a regionalism, but since one of the hits is from the Delaware County (Pa.) Daily Times and I grew up within a few miles of Delco I think I have some authority to say it’s not a super-common regionalism in that particular region.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    For potential further investigation of the regionalism hypothesis, there is what you might call a highish-level regional cluster of the three living authors mentioned in the examples: C. Paglia grew up in Upstate New York; S. Orlean grew up in northeastern Ohio; K. Michaels (or rather the person who uses that penname) grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania.

  5. Yes, I’ve heard “wifty,” quite a bit in fact in my first youth. I can’t swear to it but I’m almost certain I first heard the word in college, early 1980s, Philadelphia.

  6. Just checked DARE: “No results match your search request.”

  7. I’d note that Paglia has been at Penn for decades. I think we’re zeroing in.

    I’ve got conference calls today with people in South Jersey and Wilkes-Barre. Trying to figure out whether I can get wifty into conversation…

  8. The 1918 cite is from Gilbert Frankau, “a popular British novelist” (says Wikipedia), but the distance between that and the 1970+ citations is so large that I’d suspect independent re-invention. It’s sound-symbolic enough that I could almost guess what it meant (never having heard it before), especially in context: similar to wift, whiff, waft, drift, woozy.

    The first dictionary to enter wifty was probably Merriam-Webster’s 10th Collegiate in 1993 (which gave the date of first use as 1979). It may have gotten a boost from MW’s Word of the Day podcast on Nov. 21, 2017. Their page currently shows a recent cite from the Washington Post, so it must have gone national, but the Pennsylvania regional origin is supported by their note:

    Wifty is a synonym of “ditzy.” And, like “ditzy,” its origins remain unknown. The earliest known print appearance of “wifty” is in a quotation that appeared in the Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, Pennsylvania) in 1972, though the word was certainly being used in spoken English before that. “Ditzy” appears to be almost as old as “wifty”—we are able to trace it back to at least 1974. But “dizzy,” which in its Old English origins meant “foolish” or “stupid,” has been used in a sense similar to “ditzy” or “wifty” since the 16th century.

    … though elsewhere on the same page they’ve updated “First Known Use” to 1918, and in the podcast to “early 20th century”, so they’ve evidently checked the OED.

  9. Looks as a spontaneous derivation, a word someone could improvise.

    I (I was dizzy when reading, literarlly) thought that 2 is about persons and their conditions and 1 is about ideas and texts. Then I saw that you are confused and reread them. Oh. Light-headed here muddle-headed there…

    I read the examples. Well, the second is about physical conditions, the former is figurative.

  10. The English Dialect Dictionary has whiffy and whiffler, in the sense of ‘waffling, indecisive’ or of ‘wishy-washy, weakly’.

  11. John Cowan says

    Ca. 1978 I was having online discussions with a (retired?) philosophy professor one of whose catchphrases was “We must avoid wifty thinking”.

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    All I can say is that if there really is a Greater Philadelphia nexus here perhaps it was not yet sufficiently common in the region (despite a few 1970’s usages) by the time I went away to college in ’83 to have infiltrated the idiolects of my high school classmates but became more common thereafter?

  13. David Marjanović says

    Ca. 1978 I was having online discussions

    …do you mean 1998?

  14. I think he meant on the Philadelphia Main Line.

  15. I think he meant on a clothesline on pulleys with notes clipped to it.

  16. First MUDs ( multi-user dangeon) appeared just slightly later.

  17. Lars Mathiesen says

    78 was a bit before SMTP and the Internet, but VNET mail was a thing. LINGUIST-L started in ’90. I was running CONLANG-L and AUXLANG-L from U of Copenhagen in the middle 90s, but I didn’t start those — I was seismo!mcvax!odin!thorinn starting on1984-09-11, long before there was a .DK domain and JANET ran the UK ass-backwards.

  18. Lars Mathiesen says

    Those first MUDs were only multi-user in the sense that a mainframe was — you mostly had to be on-site at a hardwired terminal. TELNET access over the ARPANET might have been possible for some of them, though.

    (Everything was in UPPER CASE, that was how we knew we were in the EIGHTIES).

  19. Delaware County borders Philadelphia and the state of Delaware. I am reasonably sure I heard “wifty” growing up in Delaware in the 1970s and 1980s, but none of my immediate family or Delaware area friends recognize it.

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    Craig provides an interesting datapoint since I have no recollection of the lexeme from growing up in northern Delaware in the ’70’s and early ’80’s (and from 7th grade forward I was attending schools less than a mile away from the Pa. state line, with Delco on the other side). So I guess I fall into the same group as Craig’s family/friends.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    Separately, I first became personally connected to the proto-internet circa 1985 in the form of BITNET. Since I think all participants were at what would now be thought of as .edu institutions, there were no dot-suffixes, and you could have reached me as brejohw@yalevmx. I was vaguely aware that you needed A LOT of randomly-infixed !!!!!’s and maybe some ALLCAPS to reach beyond BITNET to other places, but did not try to venture there myself.

  22. It’s possible that I am misremembering when I became acquainted with it, of course.

  23. drift

    I thought ‘drift’ was related to ‘drive’. ‘Drift’ is originally from Old Norse drift ‘snowdrift, something driven’. That’s why we talk about the ‘driven snow’.

    Old English drīfan, ‘urge (a person or animal) to go forward’, related to German treiben.

    Doesn’t seem sound-symbolic to me.

  24. Drift is related to drive etymologically, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also have sound symbolism. (And it isn’t known to be borrowed from Norse; it isn’t attested in English before Middle English, but it could have developed within English from drive or could have been borrowed from any other Germanic language.)

    Anyway, putting drift in with the others was just an offhand guess; I may have been overly influenced by its meaning. That’s the problem with sound symbolism arguments, they’re so subjective (though Anatoly Liberman treats them as universal laws).

    DARE: “No results match your search request.”

    DARE’s fieldwork was done in 1965-70, and was weighted toward older informants; for earlier and later periods, they use written sources. If they didn’t pick up wifty, that may mean it wasn’t yet common even regionally by 1970. Or they just missed it — but so far it doesn’t look like it has a continuous trail between 1918 and 1970.

    I wondered if the 1918 use could have been a typo for witty, but in fact wifty appears in both the book and magazine serial publications, so the OED did have good reason to believe that’s what the author intended. But I still think independent re-invention is likely.

  25. well, dr-/tr- has that peculiar sound (and peculiar sensation when you articulate it) in langauges that have trilled/tapped/flapped rrr.

  26. Which is part of why, in memeland, Scottish people can’t say “purple burglar alarm”.

  27. trill, by the way.

  28. Survey data: The Philadelphia Inquirer archives show 163 articles using the term wifty in the last 40 years.
    – 9/8/2002 – I dreamed that A&E’s wifty supernatural sci-fi thriller The Lathe of Heaven was really good.
    – 5/3/2008 – If you give someone as wifty as Paula Abdul a regular routine, there’s about a 40% chance she will

    Control sample: The Chicago Tribune had 79, over a 150-year period.

    Research limitations: The Tribune let me see images of the newspaper, proving their samples were overwhelmingly false positives on witty, nifty, swifty and even fifty. Of the first 40, only 3 were real. Because I’m not a subscriber, I was unable to examine the Inquirer hits to see if they suffered from the same problem. I could see example 1 above being a false positive for witty. #2 doesn’t seem to work with witty.

    Data analysis: The sheer scale of Inquirer articles suggests most of the hits were real. The alternative would be that they used witty and nifty a lot more often than the Trib, which seems untenable.

    Further research: One of the Trib articles had a promising snippet, but it wasn’t properly linked back to the article. I googled, thinking it might lead to complete version of the article somewhere. But instead, I discovered that article was quoted in what will be the motherlode for this thread, a William Safire article on the very word:

    Safire described it as a Philadelphia word that picked up a powerful Boston sponsor.

    * Safire was even syndicated in Taiwan?

  29. Kate Bunting says

    “Wifty” is a synonym of “ditzy”. (Merriam-Webster)

    Here in the UK I often see references in clothing catalogues to ‘ditsy prints’, but the only definition in this sense that I can find online (using both spellings) is https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/ditsy.

    BTW, ‘wifty’ is unknown to me (and to my spellchecker!).

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    In my experience “ditzy” (or “ditsy”) is typically predicated of females (the degendering revolution not having gotten as far with pejorative vocabulary as with many other parts of the lexicon), and many of the examples in the Safire column are consistent with a hypothesis that the same would be true of “wifty,” yet many of the other examples in e.g. the OED suggest that “wifty” is not limited/focused like that.

  31. I discovered that article was quoted in what will be the motherlode for this thread, a William Safire article on the very word

    Excellent find! Here’s the original NY Times column; I’ll quote the section on “wifty” for those who are paywalled out of the link:


    “Reviews of her speech in July at the Democratic convention ran the gamut,” wrote Katharine Q. Seelye in The Times in September about Teresa Heinz Kerry, “from self-absorbed to wifty.”

    That put my researcher, Elizabeth Phillips, on the trail of this unfamiliar term. A month before, the doughty columnist, Ellen Goodman, stoutly defended the Democratic candidate’s outspoken wife in The Boston Globe, though she wrote that a remark Mrs. Heinz Kerry made on the “Today” show “was pretty wifty.”

    Earlier in the summer, The Washington Times’s Scott Galupo wrote that Catherine Zeta-Jones, in the movie “The Terminal,” played “a slightly wifty, lovelorn international flight attendant.” And the Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Karen Heller noted that “people are always happy with pie and also Toll House cookies, provided you don’t get too wifty with the recipe.”

    In 1985, a Times editorial writer (always anonymous but it was Jack Rosenthal, with slanguage help from his son, John), in an editorial headed “The Dictionary of Dumb,” did a riff on airhead, then a teenage term being bruited about in derogation of female politicians. He was the first on my block to say it was synonymous with ditsy and wifty.

    Though wifty seems to be used frequently in Philadelphia — Ms. Seelye is from the nearby Main Line — and writers on the Fluffya Inkwire (where Ms. Seelye once worked) like the word, its major sponsor has been Boston’s Goodman. “How do I explain the word wifty,” she wrote in 1988, “which appeared in a column describing Susan Sarandon’s character in ‘Bull Durham’? . . . Some assumed it was a typo and printed nifty. Now the truth can be told. Wifty: A cross between fey, spacey and charming. Soon to be available in your local dictionary.”

    And there it is, in Merriam-Webster’s with-it 11th Collegiate edition, tracked back to 1979, origin unknown, defined as “ditsy.” In turn, that synonym is defined as “eccentrically silly, giddy, or inane: dizzy” (which is why I would spell it ditzy). That meaning is a considerable distance from Goodman’s gentle definition — her fey now means “campy, elfin, otherworldly” — but nobody owns a word’s meaning after it leaves Philadelphia and Boston. A neologism can vanish in a nonce, or could last a full generation, as wifty has, or even make itself comfortable in the dictionary just as has the similar nifty — a slang term for “fine” that dates to the Civil War.

  32. I had taken Fluffya Inkwire for some sort of early blog. Only now realizing it’s a jokey dialect spelling of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

  33. Heh. Yes, good ol’ Bill (alevasholem) was fond of that sort of thing.

  34. How interesting that there really is a Philadelphia connection!

    I’d note that Paglia has been at Penn for decades. I think we’re zeroing in.

    Not to be a nitpicker, but a small correction: Paglia has been teaching at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia since 1984, according to Wikipedia.

  35. He thought, in 1985, that “airhead” was “teenage slang”? Whatevs, daddy-o.

  36. An excuse to relate one of my favorites tabloid headlines, from the Chicago Sun-Times in 1990, on the forced resignation of the air force member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — Air Head Fired

  37. @Ryan: Cute, but the head of the United States Air Force is the civilian secretary of the Air Force, not the uniformed Air Force Chief of Staff. Moreover, the Air Force Chief of Staff, while normally the most senior officer in the service is not part of the chain of command, while the secretary is, with direct operational authority over the various Air Force commands. As the name suggests, the Air Force Chief of Staff is responsible for the service’s personnel management: recruitment, training, assignments, logistics, etc.; they also serve as an advisor to their superiors in the civilian leadership: the president, the secretary and deputy secretary of defense, and the secretary of the Air Force. The other positions on the Joint Chiefs of Staff have similar responsibilities in the other services. (However, the names of the equivalent positions in the United States Navy are, for historical reasons, Chief of Naval Operations and Commandant of the Marine Corps, even though those posts are no longer in charge of the operational command structure.)

  38. I trust you’re not suggesting that the Chicago Sun-Times could or should have crammed all that into a headline.

  39. Stu Clayton says

    It could have, if footnotes were allowed in headlines. Why are they not allowed ? Is it because headlines are precisely intended for people who don’t read what follows (like myself), much less any footnotes in it ?

  40. John Cowan says

    It’s a hierarchy: heads, subheads, body text, footnotes.

  41. I trust you’re not suggesting that the Chicago Sun-Times could or should have crammed all that into a headline.

    So speaking about footnotes, I think it is doable. Enough to find the body part that presides over logistics.

  42. The arm-y is, of course, off to the side.

  43. Earlier published occurrences:

    1. In The Triumph of Life: A Novel (1903; retrieved from Google books, assembled from snippet views):

    But the little old gentleman had already strolled away.
    Slocum watched his receding figure. “Huh!” he exclaimed; “kinder wifty!” then fell again to his intent waiting. Slowly the stranger rambled along the grassy supermargin of the shore.

    2. In John Martin’s Annual: A Jolly Big Book for Little Folks (1917; retrieved from Google books, snippet view; italics in original):

    Those two danced the wifty bifty.
    Danced the giddy google [sic!] glide.
    Danced a ten step and a mixish,
    And the bouncing billow slide.

    Now, Breffni’s conjecture (see near the top):

    … sense 1 is a habitual way of thinking/arguing, sense 2 is how you get when you’re concussed.

    Hmm. If we take this as including persons who have a “habitual way of thinking/arguing” (not just those ways themselves) the conjecture could not be securely founded on the OED definitions alone:

    [Sense 1]: Vague, imprecise; (of thinking, argument, etc.) unclear; muddle-headed, scatterbrained; fuzzy.

    [Sense 2:] Light-headed, muzzy, confused.

    After all, one can get “vague” or “imprecise” from concussion: in a borrowed (metonymic) way, because it is perhaps only “thinking, argument, etc.” that are ever strictly or originally vague or imprecise. One is branded with these epithets if one makes vague or imprecise utterances. It’s interesting that OED makes a restriction to “thinking, argument, etc.” only for the meanings “unclear; muddle-headed, scatterbrained; fuzzy”. Of these, “muddle-headed” and “scatterbrained” apply primarily to persons, and only metonymically to persons. So what is OED up to here?

    We could analyse similarly for Sense 2. “Light-headed” and “confused” apply primarily to persons, but “muzzy” might apply with equal primacy to persons and their thoughts (subsumed under different subdivisions of Sense 1 in the OED entry for “muzzy”, where Sense 2 applies primarily to persons).

    Turning to the examples under Sense 1 and Sense 2 for “wifty”, nothing is as clear as Breffni suggests. Sense 1 includes “thinking, argument, etc.” for at least some of the listed meanings, so how can this be basically a matter of some trait as opposed to some state of a person? Two of the four examples apply to persons or sets of persons:

    1970 Delaware County (Pa.) Daily Times 30 Nov. 18/1 He didn’t play before because he was mixed up in one of the whifty groups who think football is for sissies.

    1991 C. Paglia Sex, Art, & Amer. Culture 226 Spoiled, wifty, middle-class academics who would be the first to shriek for the police if a burglar or rapist came through the window.

    This is complicated by the fact that the 1970 application to groups is also metonymic, like “laughing” in “a laughing audience”.

    Only the 1991 example give strong support to Breffni’s distinction. That said, the examples for Sense 2 fit well with his hypothesis:

    1973 McCall’s Dec. 108/2 Sometimes she was sharp as a razor, sometimes wifty, sometimes she had to go to the infirmary with a ‘sinking spell’.

    2004 K. Michaels This can’t be Love x. 123 He was too numb to feel pain. Wifty. Out of it.

    These are definitely state as opposed to trait usages: for persons. But my own diagnosis is that the OED folk responsible this entry were themselves lapsing into a bout of transitory wiftiness.

  44. Excellent finds, and I’m glad to have a companion in my OED-skeptical attitude!

  45. @Noetica: Your analysis seems sound.

    However, I was also struck by the presence of the word supermargin in the quote from The Triumph of Life: A Novel. The word, in the physical sense of a raised (?) boundary or shore seems to be unknown to the usual online dictionaries and other sources. The adjective supermarginal is far more common, but its meanings (from biology, economics, and political science) all seem to be compositional ones meaning “above marginal.” More recently, super margin (almost always an open compound) evidently refers to an extra sum of money that has to be paid to a financial clearinghouse to cover additional leverage risk not covered by a standard margin (such as when a position extends over a holiday when the market is closed, giving prices a longer-than-normal time to fluctuate).

  46. Your analysis seems sound.

    Thanks, but I must make a correction.

    Not this:

    … “muddle-headed” and “scatterbrained” apply primarily to persons, and only metonymically to persons.

    But this:

    … “muddle-headed” and “scatterbrained” apply primarily to persons, and only metonymically to states or traits.

    There is also at least one missing word in my text. I (or my state) was (momentarily) muddle-headed.

    And yes, I too was struck by supermargin.

  47. Whiffety, not in the OED, seems to have been one of Guy Davenport’s pet words. He used it in stories in both the collection Apples and Pears and the collection The Death of Picasso. And whiffet also occurs in Apples and Pears. I have never been sure what the words mean in context.

  48. I just used “wifty” in a referee report. The manuscript was really, really bad.

  49. Looks like a cognate or borrowing of Early Modern Dutch wiftich* (in wifticheyt ‘frivolity’), itself a lengthening of wift ‘frivolous’ (now wuft).

    Comparable is dialectal English whiffy (also written wiffy) ‘uncertain, changeable, weak, foolish; thin, insipid; pale, sickly, delicate’, in Northumbria and Lincolnshire.

  50. PlasticPaddy says

    “Outside the asylum gates a brass band huffed and thumped with brazen sneezes, silver whiffets, thundering sonorities and a detonating drum”
    I would say the definition of small puffing sound would fit. Either
    (a) the silver refers to the wind section (flutes and piccolos), so the whiffets would be the punctuating notes heard as puffs or touches
    (b) sneezes are brazen (trombone or tuba) but whiffets are silver (trumpets)
    Do you have other examples?

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