or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, August 15, 2008


Last week I was fixing up the store for the next day's opening--it's called "recovery" and it can take quite a while because people are pigs, tearing open packages, leaving anything anywhere, letting their infants chew on rubber stamps while in the store and then leaving the evidence--and I noticed that a particular colour of yarn was called "Whispy White". It's a mistake I've seen before, and it's not completely incomprehensible: "wisp" sounds like the first syllable of "whisper", and if you tried to, you might even be able to convince yourself that the two words were related; a whisper is a little wisp (or "whisp") of a sound, of a voice....

I couldn't convince myself of it, though. I mused about it for a while and I decided that, even though I didn't know the provenance of either word, "wisp" and "whisper" were most definitely not related. Then I promptly forgot about it until I read these words on this blog:

This is what I had hoped L'Artisan's Songes might be like - a whispy, soft, almost cotton-like aroma.

So there it is again. I'm sure a lot of people think "whispy" is the correct spelling. It isn't. Never has been in the entire history of the language, either.

"Wisp" is related, unexpectedly, to "wipe", and I'll get to the actual mechanics of that in a second. "Wipe" may be a descendant of Latin "vibrare", "to move back and forth"; the senses are similar, even if the etymology is far from certain.

With a long "-i-", "wip" is the same as modern "wipe". Though wispiness and wiping have nothing in common, there was a small collection of words from Germanic languages that illustrate the cloud of meanings that led to the modern sense; Old High German "wifan", "to wind around", and Gothic "weipan", "to crown" (think "to twine laurels around the head"), clearly relate to the sense of "wisp" as "thin tufts or strands".

"Wisp" was originally "wips", which you can clearly see is derived from "wip"; the change in letter order is called metathesis. This same sort of change turned "waeps", a singular noun, into "wasp".

"Whisper", on the other hand, is from Old English "hwisprian", which is related to and possibly descended from Old Norse "hviskra", with the same meaning. This illustrates something rather interesting about English: that most of our "wh-" words came from Norse/Germanic sources that started with "hw-" or "hv-", and in fact are still pronounced as if the "h-" came first. You can pronounce "where" to rhyme with "wear", if you like, and most people do in casual conversation, but if you want to stress the word, or if you're speaking very formally, you're more likely to pronounce the "-h-", and you're going to have to pronounce it as if the word were spelled "hwere". Likewise, "which" was originally "hwilc", "what" was "hwaet", "whicker" was "hwicung", and so on and so on.

"Whisper" is related to "whistle" and "whine", and I'm guessing the relationship is obvious.


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