I wonder if it’s a malformation of “snaffle”? And here, some interesting speculation about yaffle.
Recently while browsing in a Russian dictionary I came upon ‘djatel’, woodpecker, which has cognates in some other Eastern European languages but not, as my European search showed, in Western ones. ‘Djatel’ was recorded as early as the 12th century in Czechoslovakia. A strong echo exists in Polish, which is where the Western penetration of Slavonic tongues ended. Where it came from before that, and how it got there, if it indeed did find its way to England, and if so by what means, I cannot say. I can suggest, however, the possibility of its being brought by ship from the Baltic countries to England.
In ‘Forests and Sea Power’, Robert Albion examines the timber problem of the Royal Navy from 1652-1862. Although well-supplied with oak, England grew no pine fit for making masts and spars; for almost the entire period of wooden warship construction, it relied on expensive imports from Baltic countries.
The pine logs often came to seaports down rivers that cut through great forests. Danzig, the old Hanse port at the mouth of the Vistula, Albion tells us, received log-rafts from as far away as Galicia. River transport was further extended by canals, taking the trade into Volhynia and the Ukraine on the Dnieper beyond Kiev.
It is possible then, that the name of the Russian woodpecker was brought to England by ships’ crews returning with cargoes of pine for masts and spars. Unaccustomed to the ‘d-ya’ sound, formed with the Russian D and what looks like a reversed R but which is in fact a soft vowel, ‘ya’, English seamen may have dropped the D and formed ‘yattle’, later softened to ‘yaffle’. Do we still hear ‘dyatel’ in the background music of yuffle, yoffle, hefful, hickle, eccle, Jack Eikle, icwell, yuckel .?
If all of this is at least plausible, who knows but that yaffle might be a surviving remnant of the long-sought Indo European language? It does not, however, seem to have come out of the Indian sub-continent, where so many Greek, Latin, European and Slavonic words are sourced. In Sanskrit the woodpecker was known as ‘Kastakut’, broadly, ‘woodcutter’; and in Hindi ‘kandhabhodva’ which translates as something like ‘throat’ and ‘great effort’.
Anyone else a Bagpuss fan?