English edit

Etymology edit

A number of flatfish are or were formerly known as whiffs (noun sense 6), including megrim (Lepidorhombus whiffiagonis; top), lemon sole (Microstomus kitt; middle), and horned whiff (Citharichthys arenaceus; bottom).

The noun is possibly:[1]

  • partly a variant of Middle English wef, weffe (bad smell, stench, stink; exhalation; vapour; tendency of something to go bad (?)) [and other forms],[2] possibly a variant of either:
    • waf, waif, waife (odour, scent),[3] possibly from waven (to move to and fro, sway, wave; to stray, wander; to move in a weaving manner; (figuratively) to hesitate, vacillate), from Old English wafian (to wave),[4] ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *webʰ- (to braid, weave); or
    • wef (a blow, stroke),[5] from weven (to travel, wander; to move to and fro, flutter, waver; to blow something away, waft; to cause something to move; to fall; to cut deeply; to sever; to give up, yield; to give deference to; to avoid; to afflict, trouble; to beckon, signal); further etymology uncertain, perhaps from Old English wefan (to weave) (ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *webʰ- (to braid, weave)), or from -wǣfan (see bewǣfan, ymbwǣfan);[6] and
  • partly onomatopoeic.

Noun sense 6 (“name of a number of flatfish”) is possibly derived from sense 1 (“brief, gentle breeze; a light gust of air”), sense 4 (“small quantity of cloud, smoke, vapour, etc.”), and other such senses.[7]

The verb[8] and adjective[1] are derived from the noun. Verb sense 2.6 (“to catch fish by dragging a handline near the surface of the water from a moving boat”) is possibly derived from sense 1.1 (“to carry or convey (something) by, or as by, a whiff or puff of air”), sense 2.2 (“to be carried, or move as if carried, by a puff of air”), and other such senses.[9]

The interjection is derived from noun sense 7.4 (“a sound like that of air passing through a small opening; a short or soft whistle”).

Pronunciation edit

Noun edit

whiff (plural whiffs)

  1. A brief, gentle breeze; a light gust of air; a waft.
    Synonym: puff
    • c. 1599–1602 (date written), William Shake-speare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke: [] (First Quarto), London: [] [Valentine Simmes] for N[icholas] L[ing] and Iohn Trundell, published 1603, →OCLC, [Act II, scene ii]:
      Purrus at Pryam driues, but all in rage, / Strikes vvide, but vvith the vvhiffe and vvinde / Of his fell ſvvord, th'unnerued father falles.
    • 1608, [Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas], “[Du Bartas His First VVeek, or Birth of the VVorld: [].] The Fourth Daie of the First VVeek.”, in Josuah Sylvester, transl., Du Bartas His Deuine Weekes and Workes [], 3rd edition, London: [] Humfrey Lownes [and are to be sold by Arthur Iohnson []], published 1611, →OCLC, page 100:
      Now as the VVinde, buffing vpon a Hill / VVith roaring breath againſt a ready Mill, / VVhirls vvith a vvhiff the ſails of ſvvelling clout, / The ſails doo ſvving the vvinged ſhaft about.
    • 1610, William Camden, “Danmonii”, in Philémon Holland, transl., Britain, or A Chorographicall Description of the Most Flourishing Kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland, [], London: [] [Eliot’s Court Press for] Georgii Bishop & Ioannis Norton, →OCLC, page 195:
      Their Enſignes ſhine, and Dragons fell that therein pictur'd ſhow, / VVave to and fro vvith vvhiffes of vvind, as it doth gently blovv.
    • 1838, Boz [pseudonym; Charles Dickens], “Introduces Some Respectable Characters with Whom the Reader Is Already Acquainted, and Shows How Monks and the Jew Laid Their Worthy Heads Together”, in Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress. [], volume III, London: Richard Bentley, [], →OCLC, page 29:
      "Give her a whiff of fresh air with the bellows, Charley," said Mr. Dawkins; "and you slap her hands, Fagin, while Bill undoes the petticoats."
  2. A short inhalation or exhalation of breath, especially when accompanied by smoke from a cigarette or pipe.
    1. (by extension, archaic) A cigarette or small cigar.
  3. An odour (usually unpleasant) carried briefly through the air.
    Synonym: sniff
    • 1731, [Jonathan Swift], “Strephon and Chloe”, in A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed. [], Dublin, London: [] [William Bowyer] for J. Roberts [], published 1734, →OCLC, page 8:
      And then, ſo nice, and ſo genteel; / Such Cleanlineſs from Head to Heel: / No Humours groſs, or frowzy Steams, / No noiſom Whiffs, or ſweaty Streams, / Before, behind, above, below, / Could from her taintleſs Body flow.
    • 1774 April 19, Edmund Burke, Speech of Edmund Burke, Esq. on American Taxation, April 19, 1774, 2nd edition, London: [] J[ames] Dodsley, [], published 1775, →OCLC, page 85:
      The fortune of ſuch men was a temptation too great to be reſiſted by one, to whom, a ſingle whiff of incenſe withheld gave much greater pain, than he received delight, in the clouds of it, which daily roſe about him from the prodigal ſuperſtition of innumerable admirers.
    • 1785, William Cowper, “Book IV. The Winter Evening.”, in The Task, a Poem, [], London: [] J[oseph] Johnson;  [], →OCLC, page 161:
      [E]v'ry twentieth pace / Conducts the unguarded noſe to ſuch a whiff / Of ſtale debauch forth-iſſuing from the ſtyes / That law has licenſed, as makes temp'rance reel.
    • 1842 December – 1844 July, Charles Dickens, “Martin Disembarks from that Noble and Fast-sailing Line of Packet Ship, the Screw, at the Port of New York, in the United States of America. []”, in The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, London: Chapman and Hall, [], published 1844, →OCLC, page 203:
      When the major rose from his rocking-chair before the stove and so disturbed the hot air and balmy whiff of soup which fanned their brows, the odour of stale tobacco became so decidedly prevalent as to leave no doubt of its proceeding mainly from that gentleman's attire.
    • 1922 October 26, Virginia Woolf, chapter II, in Jacob’s Room, Richmond, London: [] Leonard & Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, →OCLC; republished London: The Hogarth Press, 1960, →OCLC, page 21:
      But the butterflies were dead. A whiff of rotten eggs had vanquished the pale clouded yellows which came pelting across the orchard and up Dods Hill and away on to the moor, now lost behind a furze bush, then off again helter-skelter in a broiling sun
  4. A small quantity of cloud, smoke, vapour, etc.; specifically (obsolete), chiefly in take the whiff: a puff of tobacco smoke.
    Synonym: puff
  5. A flag used as a signal.
    Synonyms: waff, waif, wheft
    • 1832, [Frederick Marryat], chapter XI, in Newton Forster; or, The Merchant Service. [], volume III, London: James Cochrane and Co., [], →OCLC, page 178:
      When the Indiaman was within a mile, the stranger threw out neutral colours, and hoisted a whiff, half-mast down, as a signal that she was in distress.
  6. Any of a number of flatfish such as (dated) the lemon sole (Microstomus kitt) and now, especially, the megrim (Lepidorhombus whiffiagonis) and (with a descriptive word) a species of large-tooth flounder or sand flounder (family Paralichthyidae).
  7. (figuratively)
    1. A slight sign of something; a burst, a glimpse, a hint.
      • 1644, John Milton, Areopagitica; a Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England, London: [s.n.], →OCLC, pages 23–24:
        [I]t reflects to the diſrepute of our Miniſters [] that after all this light of the Goſpel vvhich is, and is to be, and all this continuall preaching, they ſhould be ſtill frequented vvith ſuch an unprincipl'd, unedify'd, and laick rabble, as that the vvhiffe of every nevv pamphlet ſhould ſtagger them out of thir catechiſm, and Chriſtian vvalking.
      • 1649, J[ohn] Milton, “XXVII. Intitl’d to the Prince of Wales”, in ΕΙΚΟΝΟΚΛΆΣΤΗΣ [Eikonoklástēs] [], London: [] Matthew Simmons, [], →OCLC, page 222:
        [N]othing can be more unhappy, more diſhonourable, more unſafe for all, then vvhen a vviſe, grave, and honourable Parlament ſhall have labourd, debated, argu'd, conſulted, and, as he himſelfe ſpeaks, contributed for the public good all their Counſels in common, to be then fruſtrated, diſapoiunted, deny'd and repuls'd by the ſingle vvhiffe of a negative, from the mouth of one vvillfull man; []
      • 1767, [Laurence Sterne], chapter IX, in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, volume IX, London: [] T. Becket and P. A. Dehondt, [], →OCLC, page 12:
        [A] vvhiff of military pride had puff'd out his ſhirt at the vvriſt; and upon that in a black leather thong clipp'd into a taſſel beyond the knot, hung the Corporal's ſtick— []
      • 1817 (date written), [Lord Byron], “Stanza L”, in Beppo, a Venetian Story, London: John Murray, [], published 1818, →OCLC, page 26:
        They had their little differences, too; / Their jealous whiffs, which never any change meant: []
      • 1878 January–December, Thomas Hardy, “Sights and Sounds Draw the Wanderers Together”, in The Return of the Native [], volume III, London: Smith, Elder, & Co., [], published 1878, →OCLC, book V (The Discovery), page 243:
        But there seemed to be not a whiff of life left in either of the unfortunates.
      • 1881–1882, Robert Louis Stevenson, “Silver’s Embassy”, in Treasure Island, London, Paris: Cassell & Company, published 14 November 1883, →OCLC, part IV (The Stockade), page 163:
        This little whiff of temper seemed to cool Silver down. He had been growing nettled before, but now he pulled himself together.
      • 2012 September 23, Ben Smith, “Leeds United 2 – 1 Everton”, in BBC Sport[1], archived from the original on 24 May 2021:
        This was a rare whiff of the big-time for a club whose staple diet became top-flight football for so long—the glamour was in short supply, however. Thousands of empty seats and the driving Yorkshire rain saw to that.
      • 2014 February 14, Kenneth Lin, “Chapter 18”, in House of Cards, season 2, episode 5, spoken by Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey):
        I can tell you first-hand that we are dealing with a regime that is not being forthright and will seize upon the faintest whiff of trepidation. This is a test to see how far they can push us before we break.
    2. A slight attack or touch.
    3. A characteristic quality of something; a flavour, a savour, a taste.
    4. A sound like that of air passing through a small opening; a short or soft whistle.
      • 1712, Humphry Polesworth [pseudonym; John Arbuthnot], “The Sequel of the History of the Meeting at the ’’Salutation’’”, in Lewis Baboon Turned Honest, and John Bull Politician. Being the Fourth Part of Law is a Bottomless-Pit. [], London: [] John Morphew, [], →OCLC, page 5:
        Nic. anſvver'd little to that, but immediately pull'd out a Boatſvvain's VVhistle; upon the firſt VVhiff, the Tradeſmen came jumping into the Room, []
    5. (sports, chiefly US, slang) A failure to hit a ball in various sports (for example, golf); a miss.
      1. (baseball) From the batter's perspective: a strike.
  8. (archaic) An expulsion of explosive or shot.
  9. (nautical) An outrigged boat for one person propelled by oar.
  10. (obsolete) A sip of an alcoholic beverage.

Hyponyms edit

Derived terms edit

Translations edit

Verb edit

whiff (third-person singular simple present whiffs, present participle whiffing, simple past and past participle whiffed)

  1. (transitive)
    1. To carry or convey (something) by, or as by, a whiff or puff of air; to blow, puff, or waft away.
    2. To say (something) with an exhalation of breath.
    3. To inhale or exhale (smoke from tobacco, etc.) from a cigarette, pipe, or other smoking implement; to smoke (a cigarette, pipe, etc.); to puff.
      • a. 1645 (date written), Fr[ancis] Quarles, “The Plague-affrighted Mans Danger. Meditat[ion] XVI.”, in Judgement and Mercie for Afflicted Souls: Or Meditations, Soliloquies, and Prayers, London: [] R. Daniel for V[rsula] Q[uarles], published 1646, →OCLC, page 92:
        VVhat pleaſure tak'ſt thou in that breath, vvhich dravvs & vvhiffs perpetuall fears?
      • 1859, George Meredith, “Indicates the Approaches of Fever”, in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. A History of Father and Son. [], volume II, London: Chapman and Hall, →OCLC, page 126:
        [] Richard, knowing his retainer's zest for conspiracy too well to seek him anywhere but in the part most favoured with shelter and concealment, found him furtively whiffing tobacco.
      • 1902, Eva Emery Dye, “Mulberry Hill”, in The Conquest: The True Story of Lewis and Clark, Chicago, Ill.: A[lexander] C[aldwell] McClurg & Company, →OCLC, book I (When Red Men Ruled), page 90:
        There was silence as they [the Shawnees] whiffed at the council pipes. Then a tall chief arose and glanced at the handful of whites and at his own three hundred along the walls of the council house.
    4. To breathe in or sniff (an odour); to smell.
      • 1635, Fra[ncis] Quarles, “Canto VII. Cant[icles] VII. XI.”, in Emblemes, London: [] G[eorge] M[iller] and sold at at Iohn Marriots shope [], →OCLC, book IV, stanza 1, page 209:
        Come, come, my deare, and let us both retire / And vvhiffe the dainties of the fragrant fields: []
      • a. 1645 (date written), Fra[ncis] Quarles, “Eglogue X”, in The Shepheards Oracles: Delivered in Certain Eglogues, London: [] M[iles] F[lesher] for John Marriot and Richard Marriot, [], published 1645 (indicated as 1646), →OCLC, page 119:
        The kalender, [] hath late deſcry'd / That evill affected planet Mars, ally'd / To temporizing Mercury, conjoyn'd / I'th'houſe of Death; [] That Houſe; vvhich like a Sun in this our Orbe, / VVhiffes up the Belgick fumes, and does abſorbe / From every Soile rich vapours, []
      • 1891 October, Will Allen Dromgoole, “A Grain of Gold”, in B[enjamin] O[range] Flower, editor, The Arena, volume IV, number XXIII, Boston, Mass.: The Arena Publishing Co., →OCLC, pages 631–632:
        He glanced once at the pines, going farther away, whiffed at the pleasant odor of the grape blooms, waved his hand to the roses, in farewell, perhaps, lifted his face to the blue heaven— [] then, wearing that same old look of his mother's, he turned, without a word, and re-entered the prison.
    5. (slang)
      1. (archaic or dated) To shoot (someone) with a firearm; hence, to assassinate or kill (someone).
        • 1837, Thomas Carlyle, “Storm and Victory”, in The French Revolution: A History [], volume I (The Bastille), London: Chapman and Hall, →OCLC, book V (The Third Estate), page 187:
          Arms are the one thing needful: with arms we are an unconquerable man-defying National Guard; without arms, a rabble to be whiffed with grapeshot.
        • 1916 January, Pousse Cailloux, “75’s”, in Blackwood’s Magazine, American edition, volume CXCIX, number MCCIII, New York, N.Y.: The Leonard Scott Publication Co., Barr Ferree, prop[rietor] [], →OCLC, section I, page 59, column 1:
          It was pointed out that troops would not always remain in the open to be whiffed out of existence by shrapnel. Rather would they get under cover at what speed they might. So a shell to deal with entrenchments, buildings, and fortifications was indicated.
        • 1939, Raymond Chandler, chapter 14, in The Big Sleep, New York, N.Y.: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, published August 1992, →ISBN, page 82:
          You shot Geiger to get it. Last night in the rain. It was dandy shooting weather. The trouble is he wasn't alone when you whiffed him. Either you didn't notice that, which seems unlikely, or you got the wind up and lammed.
      2. (US, baseball) Of a pitcher: to strike out (a batter); to fan.
    6. (obsolete) To consume (an alcoholic beverage).
  2. (intransitive)
    1. To move in a way that causes a light gust of air, or a whistling sound.
    2. To be carried, or move as if carried, by a puff of air; to waft.
    3. To smoke a cigarette, pipe, or other smoking implement.
    4. To smell; to sniff.
    5. (slang)
      1. To give off or have an unpleasant smell; to stink.
        • 1899 January, Rudyard Kipling, “An Unsavoury Interlude”, in Stalky & Co., London: Macmillan & Co., published 1899, →OCLC, page 79:
          She [a dead cat]—is—there, gettin' ready to surprise 'em. Presently she'll begin to whisper to 'em in their dreams. Then she'll whiff. Golly, how she'll whiff!
        • 2007, Chris Walker, with Neil Bramwell, “Tourist Stalker”, in Stalker!: Chris Walker: The Autobiography, London: HarperSport, HarperCollinsPublishers, →ISBN, page 31:
          The second trauma was sharing a boat with all the foreigners who were beginning to whiff somewhat and had things crawling out of their beards, having spent days on end reaching the ferry on their bikes.
      2. (US, chiefly sports) Especially in baseball or golf: to completely miss hitting a ball; hence (baseball), of a batter: to strike out; to fan.
      3. (by extension) To fail spectacularly.
        • 2021 June 30, Farhad Manjoo, “Democrats have a year to save the planet”, in The New York Times[2], New York, N.Y.: The New York Times Company, →ISSN, →OCLC, archived from the original on 30 June 2021:
          Or consider an alternative [imaginary] exhibit, in some side gallery, that sadly reflects on an enormous lost opportunity. [] This is a dark, dead end in the Biden library: A once mighty nation is served its toughest challenge yet, and it whiffs.
      4. (video games) In fighting games, to execute a move that fails to hit the opponent.
    6. (fishing) To catch fish by dragging a handline near the surface of the water from a moving boat.

Derived terms edit

Translations edit

Adjective edit

whiff (comparative more whiff, superlative most whiff)

  1. (informal) Having a strong or unpleasant odour.
    Synonyms: stinking, whiffy; see also Thesaurus:malodorous
    • 1899 January, Rudyard Kipling, “An Unsavoury Interlude”, in Stalky & Co., London: Macmillan & Co., published 1899, →OCLC, pages 77–78:
      [F]rom under a pile of stones [they] drew forth the new-slain corpse of a cat. [] 'Well-nourished old lady, ain't she?' said Stalky. 'How long d'you suppose it'll take her to get a bit whiff in a confined space?' / 'Bit whiff! What a coarse brute you are!' said M'Turk. 'Can't a poor pussy-cat get under King's dormitory floor to die without your pursuin' her with your foul innuendoes?'
    • 2002 November 5, Jim Rozen, “Way oil”, in rec.crafts.metalworking[3] (Usenet):
      Whoo boy that gear oil is pretty whiff. If you actually do this, spend the extra money for the synthetic gear oil as it will not have as bad a sulfur stink as the regular stuff.

Translations edit

Interjection edit


  1. Used to indicate a sound like that of air passing through a small opening, that is, a short or soft whistle.
    • 1828, [Edward Bulwer-Lytton], chapter XXXII, in Pelham; or, The Adventures of a Gentleman. [], volume I, London: Henry Colburn, [], →OCLC, page 293:
      Sir Willoughby, [] made to this extraordinary remonstrance no other reply than a long whiff, and a "Well, Russelton, dash my wig (a favourite oath of Sir W.'s) but you're a queer fellow."
    • 1850, Alfred Tennyson, “Conclusion”, in The Princess: A Medley, 3rd edition, London: Edward Moxon, [], →OCLC, page 174:
      But yonder, whiff! there comes a sudden heat, / The gravest citizen seems to lose his head, []

Translations edit

See also edit

References edit

  1. 1.0 1.1 whiff, n.1”, in OED Online  , Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, December 2021; whiff1, n.”, in Lexico, Dictionary.com; Oxford University Press, 2019–2022.
  2. ^ wēf, n.(1)”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  3. ^ wā̆f, n.”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  4. ^ wāven, v.”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  5. ^ wēf, n.(2)”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  6. ^ wēven, v.(2)”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  7. ^ whiff, n.2”, in OED Online  , Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, December 2021; whiff2, n.”, in Lexico, Dictionary.com; Oxford University Press, 2019–2022.
  8. ^ whiff, v.1”, in OED Online  , Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, December 2021; whiff1, v.”, in Lexico, Dictionary.com; Oxford University Press, 2019–2022.
  9. ^ whiff, v.2”, in OED Online  , Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, December 2021.

Further reading edit