Monday, June 08, 2009

Willy, at a Loss

For this week: an etymological mystery.
williwaw (WI-li-wah) — noun: 1a. a sudden violent gust of cold land air common along mountainous coasts of high latitudes. 1b: a sudden violent wind. 2. a violent commotion.
This word, which happens to be the title of Gore Vidal’s first book, came into use with 19th-century British sailors, or so says Wikipedia. I suppose I shall have to take this anonymous contributor’s word as true; it’s as much as anybody else seems to know about the origins of the term, for one, and for another, doesn’t williwaw sound exactly like a word a British sailor would make up? It’s truly great, this williwaw — which rolls off the tongue presumably more smoothly than do the associated bone-chilling, ship-toppling winds — and yet we don’t seem to have any good leads on where it might have come from. Even evered word nerd haven Online Etymology Dictionary doesn’t even have an entry for the term.

Wikipedia’s less social cousin, Wiktionary, seems to posit a possible connection, though only in the subtlest of ways. Its entry on williwaw ends with the curious “See also” section containing only one thing recommended for viewing: the Scottish whillywha. Also spelled whilly-wha and whilly-whaw, the word means “a flattering deceiver,” “wheedling speech, cajolery,” or “evasive, indirect speech.” It sure sounds like williwaw, but the similarity doesn’t prove anything. Nonetheless, the existence of the English words blowhard — another irritating speaker, though one whose deceptions serve to make himself appear grander and not someone else — and windbag — someone who just doesn’t know when to shut up — should remind us that the connection between aerial phenomenon and blabbermouths is, logically enough, a longstanding one.

Hate williwaw? Irritated by near-palindromes? You’re in luck. It has synonyms. Around the Alaskan panhandle, the winds are also known by a far inferior name, outflow wind, or better but not as good as williwaw word, squamish wind. On Greenland, the word is piteraq.

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4 comments:

  1. In the second of its two hefty tomes, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary lists the origin of williwaw as "unkn." but politely refers readers to "willy, noun sense 3", which in turn refers them back to williwaw in the great lexicographical tradition of circular cross-referencing.

    However, it's actual definition of the word, "A sudden violent squall orig in the Straits of Magellan," seems to provide, or suggest, a location.

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  3. The OED has the following as the etymology of "williwaw":

    [?]

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  4. Ben: Thanks for the comment. I love circular definitions.

    B/G: Well, good to know that even the OED doesn't know everything.

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