1550s, "to cut thin shavings from (something) with a knife," from M.E. whittel "a knife" (c1400), variant of thwittle (late 14c.), from O.E. þwitan "to cut," from P.Gmc. *thwitanan (cf. O.N. þveita "to hew"). Figurative sense is attested from 1746. Related: Whittled; whittling.