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.

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