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shameless pleading

Whim-whams

Creeps me out.

Dear Word Detective: You use the word “wimwams” from time to time. I’ve looked here and there, and tried to find it in your archives, but I can’t find anything on it. Google (when I try it) sends me zero results … how odd. How odd, when it’s clear what you mean by the word. — George.

It is odd, especially since I could have sworn that I wrote a column on “wimwams” at some point, but it is indeed not to be found in our archives at www.word-detective.com. Perhaps I dreamed writing it, the way I sometimes dream I’m back at my old job in New York City, trying to explain why my lunch hour has lasted twelve years. Or perhaps I actually did write it, and my computer quietly ate it.

On the other hand, if I’ve actually been using “wimwams” in my columns for years without ever explaining it, I’ve been following in the family tradition. I picked up the word “wimwams” from my mother, Mary D. Morris, who used it frequently and probably learned it growing up in Ohio. But my mother collaborated with my father, William Morris, on this column for many years, and when the two of them produced the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (HarperCollins, 1988), guess what word they didn’t include? I guess the first rule of “wimwams” is that you don’t talk about “wimwams.”

Part of the problem you faced in tracking down “wimwams” elsewhere is my fault, because I’ve been using a variant spelling of the word, which is more usually rendered as “whim-wham” in the singular (although the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) also lists “whym-wham,” “whim-whom” and several other forms). The OED gives two definitions for “whim-wham”: “A fanciful or fantastic object … a trinket,” and “A fantastic notion, odd fancy.” The third definition, recognized by other dictionaries, is the sense I learned from my mother, that of “the jitters” or “the willies,” as in “The brakes on that old car give me the whim-whams.” This sense is almost always found in the plural, preceded by “the.”

By now those of you not futzing with your iPads will have noticed the word “whim” sitting there right at the front of “whim-wham,” and thereby hangs a tale. A very confusing tale. “Whim” is, of course, a well-known word meaning “a sudden fanciful impulse” (“Larry bought the condo on a whim because he liked the shape of the bathtub”) or “an eccentric idea.”¬† Thus “whim” fits nicely with the “odd fancy” definition of “whim-wham,” and a now-obsolete definition of “whim” (“A fanciful or fantastic creation”) matches the first definition of “whim-wham” precisely. “Whim,” in fact, may simply be a shortened form of “whim-wham.” Or maybe not.

The problem is that while “whim-wham” has been found in print around 1529, almost a century before “whim” and the related “whimsy” appear, “whim-wham” is clearly what linguists call a “reduplicated” form, involving the repetition of an initial word with a minor variation, as in “dilly-dally” or “hocus-pocus.” The base word here is clearly “whim” or “whimsy,” but if “whim-wham” really appeared before “whim,” we’ve got a problem. It’s possible that this chicken-and-egg tangle will be cleared up someday, but for the moment all we can say is that “whim-wham,” “whim” and “whimsy” are closely related.

As for where the “jitters” sense of “whim-wham” comes from, it has been suggested that¬† “whim-wham” might be a relative of the Old Norse word “hvima” (meaning “to glance around wildly with the look of a frightened person”), which certainly sounds to me like someone stuck in a speeding car with bad brakes.

7 comments to Whim-whams

  • Nancy

    Wimwams also rhymes with jimjams, which can mean extreme nervousness or jitters (as well as DTs, apparently and pjs in the UK). Hmmm.

  • h.s. gudnason

    @ Nancy, and courtesy of W. S. Gilbert:

    When you find you’re a broken-down critter,
    Who is all of a trimmle and twitter,
    With your palate unpleasantly bitter,
    As if you’d just eaten a pill–
    When your legs are as thin as dividers,
    And you’re plagued with unruly insiders,
    And your spine is all creepy with spiders,
    And you’re highly gamboge in the gill–
    When you’ve got a beehive in your head,
    And a sewing machine in each ear,
    And you feel that you’ve eaten your bed,
    And you’ve got a bad headache down here–
    When such facts are about,
    And these symptoms you find
    In your body or crown–
    Well, you’d better look out,
    You may make up your mind
    You had better lie down!

    When your lips are all smeary–like tallow,
    And your tongue is decidedly yallow,
    With a pint of warm oil in your swallow,
    And a pound of tin-tacks in your chest–
    When you’re down in the mouth with the vapours,
    And all over your Morris wall-papers
    Black-beetles are cutting their capers,
    And crawly things never at rest–
    When you doubt if your head is your own,
    And you jump when an open door slams–
    Then you’ve got to a state which is known
    To the medical world as “jim-jams”
    If such symptoms you find
    In your body or head,
    They’re not easy to quell–
    You may make up your mind
    You are better in bed,
    For you’re not at all well!

  • j.ausum

    Wim wams. Comic strip “Annie Rooney,” about 1945.

  • Tom

    My father always said us kids (me and my two brothers) had the wim-wams when we were acing hyper-active or overly excited, and now I say the same about my clowder of cats. So now to read these other definitions of it, they seem totally wrong in my view, but that’s just coz I was raised believing that.

  • Kimberly Black

    My parents used to tell me and my brothers that if we ate before bed it would give us the Whim-whams. I just assumed it meant having bad dreams or what not.

    Now having children of my own and my oldest going to be 18 in a couple of weeks asked me why I would say that and she was trying to look up the definition. I guess she was talking to friends about things their parents would say growing up and she was the only one that had the weird parents. So she said lol

  • stephanie pyle

    My mother had an uncanny sense of premonition;she called them the whim whams.
    I get them …a sense of dread…but no foreknowledge.

  • Geoff Young

    Origin – my mother, who grew up during World War 2. For use when picking one thing or person out of a group: “Eenie meanie miney moe, Gee I got the wim wams something awful, I hope Hitler dies now, PLEASE!!” You’re It.

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