Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it through not dying.” I’m with Woody on this one. Well, the second part in particular. Which is why I am currently back on the WeightWatchers® diet in an attempt to reverse the results of a recent “Wellness Check.” I purposely have that phrase in quotes because the reality is that a “wellness check” is really an “unwellness” check – it is designed to tell you how sick you are. The check was also linked to a new “Health and Wellness” scheme we’ve recently implemented at my company, the major motivation for joining being that it reduces your health care contributions. Being healthy saves you money. In truth, without that financial incentive, I’d be hurtling towards an untimely end a significant number of years earlier than the traditionally allotted three-score-years-and-ten. Who would have thought that exclusive consumption of dead animals, fermented fruits and grains, and exercise no more strenuous than lifting a six-pack of beer could lead to premature death?
The blood test revealed that I was on the border to becoming a diabetic, on the border to becoming a high cholesterol heart attack victim, and so far over the border as regards my weight that I can legally be classified as an illegal alien in Fatland. But what really sealed the dieting deal for me was my very cool and very expensive Joseph Abboud, single-breasted, pin-striped gray suit. It doesn’t fit.
Just before Christmas, which is always a bad time to think about weight loss in general, I am ashamed to say that my choice of attire for the company party was dictated to by my waistline. In the words of Steely Dan in the classic Deacon Blues;
This is the age of the expanding man
That shape is my shame, there where I used to stand.
There was no way on earth, short of paying for liposuction, that I was going to be able to fasten those pants. None. The shame was further enhanced by the fact that I couldn’t even pull the zip all the way up, let alone fasten the buttons. The effect of my blubber slobbering over the waistband was less of a muffin top than a tsunami of fat that threatened to bury my feet.
The word muffin top has now achieved some legitimacy in that it has recently been added to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Since March 2011, the official definition of a muffin top now includes;
A roll of flesh which hangs visibly over a person’s (esp. a woman’s) tight-fitting waistband.
Prior to this, the original definition has been in existence for almost 100 years;
The top of a muffin; spec. the part which rises above the rim of the tin or cup during baking; (now also) a type of intended to resemble this, baked in a specially designed tin with shallow depressions.
The metaphorical use of this to refer to the all-to-familiar state of sartorial inelegance is obvious. The OED has a written reference dated 2000 but it will have been around longer than this in spoken language.
The word muffin itself can be traced back to 17th century England where it also appears in the forms muffings, moofin, moufin, and mowfinn. The origin is uncertain but Low German had the word muffe meaning “little cake,” and in the 14th century, the Old French word moflet referred to a kind of bread – which, in turn, was used as an adjective meaning “soft” in reference to bread.
By the time the word was common currency in British English in the 17th century, it referred to any type of bread or cake, but it seems that primarily, a muffin was a flat bread that was often cut in half and toasted.
Then it gets more complicated.
There is also a popular British flat bread called a crumpet, which differs from a muffin only marginally. The crumpet mix contains milk and baking soda, and is made to be thinner than a muffin mix, which uses yeast or sourdough. When cooked, the crumpet develops distinctive dimples, the true value of which is that you can cram butter into the holes and therefore increase your cholesterol intake probably by a factor of ten.
In the US, the word became more specifically used to refer to sweet cakes rather than breads, with the originally bread-type muffin being referred to as the English muffin, which is the way it is today. The American muffin is closer to the English bun or cake, baked in a small cup like the American cupcake.
A small, usually sweet sponge cake, baked in a cup-shaped container. Freq. with modifying word indicating the flavour or additional ingredients (1835 definition).
Still with me?
OK, let’s make it a little clearer with pictures. Here’s an English cake or bun, which is an American cupcake:
And now here is an English muffin, as sold in America.
Finally an American muffin, which can be bought in the UK as an American muffin! Note the distinctive overhanging muffin top.
In the busy world of slang, where words are tossed, twisted, tweaked, and thoroughly abused in order to make them work much harder, the word muffin has taken up residency with some vigor. Back in 1830, we find it being used to refer to a fool, but this has since evolved to include the notion of a muffin as a dogsbody or anyone who is overly compliant;
It was already attracting a group of young, eager volunteers like Cornelius—‘muffins’, in the parlance of ‘Primary Colors’—whose job was to perform whatever tasks‥needed doing. (New Yorker, 15 April. 56/2).
In baseball, the word was used to describe someone who would miss catching a ball, although what is worth noting here is that the derivation is not from the bread or cake but from the verb “to muff,” defined by the OED as;
To miss (a catch, a ball), esp. in cricket; to play (a shot, a game, etc.) badly. Also with it: to miss a catch, to play or perform badly.
This meaning appeared first in 1827 in William Clarke’s Every Night Book, or Life After Dark, where he wrote;
When one of the fancy dies, the survivors say, that he has‥‘mizzled’—‘morrised’—or ‘muffed it’!
Canada provides us with another interpretation of the muffin; a temporary female partner.
At the beginning of the winter season each young man chose ‘a muffin’—a ‘steady date’ for the season—an arrangement terminated by mutual consent in the following spring. (Stephens, G. 1965).
This has become extended to refer to any attractive woman, and more recently – from the early 1980’s at least – it has been further tweaked to become specific to a sexually attractive male in the compound stud muffin.
Its use as slang for the female vagina is, etymologically speaking, also fascinating. In John Farmer’s 1897 book, Merry Songs & Ballads, he quotes a song from 1707 with the splendidly raunchy phrase, “The Muff between her Haunches, Resembl’d‥a Mag-Pye’s Nest.” However, the word muff in comes from the Middle Dutch muffel, meaning “related to fur” and ultimately perhaps from Latin muffula.
The shift to using muffin rather than muff seems, in retrospect, to not be too much of a stretch. It also appears to have been an American creation. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang traces its use to the 1950’s in the US, but in the UK, there was a popular children’s pupper show called “Muffin the Mule” that ran from 1946 to 1957. It’s unlikely the chappies at the Beeb would have allowed a puppet to be named after a slang term for a vagina! So, the chances are that the genitally orientated interpretation is an American 40’s/50’s word.
By now you are probably either confused or hungry. But remember that a Blueberry Streusel Muffin from Starbucks is 10 WeightWatcher Plus Points, which is a sizable hole in my 29-point daily limit, or 360 calories for those of you who are following calorie-control diets. Either way, you may want to consider something else if you want to avoid turning the blueberry muffin top into your own personal muffin top.
 The BBC also ran the animated series, Captain Pugwash, which aired initially from 1957 to 1966. Allegedly, the characters included Master Bates, Seaman Stains, and Roger the Cabin Boy (in UK slang, “to roger” means “to have sex with.”) Sadly this is an urban legend – and I say “sadly” because I do so wish it had been true!
My good friend and fellow word lover, Steve Badman, sent me the following correction to my Steely Dan quote:
This is the day of the expanding man
That shape is my shade, there where I used to stand.
He took that straight from the lyrics printed on his physical copy of a 1997 re-issue of Aja on ABC Records. I’m adding this as a postscript rather than simply changing the original quote because I have a thing about creeping Revisionism on the net. I want folks who read this to KNOW that I made a mistake, and they can then speculate as to WHY I did it. Was I negligent in my sources? Have I always had the wrong lyric in my head? Is the erroneous version a result of some unconscious feelings of guilt or anxiety? Whatever it is, simply deleting the error and pretending it didn’t happen strikes me as ethical dubious.