“Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief, Taffy broke into my house And stole a pound of beef”
A nursery rhyme rarely told to children these days on account of being hugely politically incorrect, but when I was a barman in the English military town of Aldershot (many years ago!), I was known to all the soldiers in my pub as Taffy. It was affectionate – British soldiers call everybody Welsh Taffy. But where does the word come from?
It’s one of those things where nobody is quite certain of the word’s origin. A lot of people will tell you that it’s a corruption of the Welsh name for St David, but that’s because they don’t know what they’re talking about. The Welsh for David is Dyfed, or Dyfedd, but St David is always Dewi, none of which bear any resemblance to Taffy – so, nice try but… well, it’s not even a nice try. It’s just bollocks!
I saw one writer who suggested it came from the name of an ancient pre-Christian god, one that almost nobody other than a handful of academics has ever heard of, and certainly hasn’t been venerated in a couple of thousand years; a speculation that strikes me as quite, quite mad.
The possibility exists that that it comes from a north-Wales Christmas tradition. The late hours of Christmas Eve were spent making taffy, a corruption of “toffee”, which involved boiling sugar, butter and black treacle (molasses, as an American would say) over the open fire and then pouring it onto the hearth stone. With well-buttered hands, the family members had a few seconds to risk severe burns by grabbing long cords of it and twisting it into fancy shapes before it cooled and hardened.
It’s a possibility, but I find it hard to believe that a Christmas tradition would lead to the nick-name for an entire people. I think a more-likely explanation is simply that the principle river that flows through Cardiff and into what used to be one of the biggest ports in the British Empire is the Taff.