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Chris -- 2018-04-11
Two years ago Peter reviewed several replacements for the last part of the phrase “will o’ the wisp,” noting “will o’ the whisk” as a possible, though rare, eggcorn.1 The post did not mention one of the most common substitutions: “whisp” for “wisp.”
But is “will o’ the whisp” an eggcorn?
First, a bit of background. “Will o’ the wisp” is English name for a phenomenon that occurs in swampy areas. A brief glowing light appears just above the ground and appears to move around. In earlier times the phenomenon tended to be attributed to fairies, demons, spirits of the dead, etc. The name “will o’ the wisp” pictures an English chap with a generic name (Will, or William) carrying a wisp, a burning twist of hay or straw, that he uses as a torch. More modern explanations introduce hard science into the interpretation, appealing to marsh gas and piezoelectric effects. Most examples of “will o’ the wisp” in modern speech are only loosely connected to the swamp phenomenon, of course. Over the centuries the phrase “will o’ the wisp” has been metaphorically extended. It refers to something evanescent, something that attracts but does not fulfill.
Now back to “will o’ the whisp.” The OED defines “whisp” as a slight blast or a puff or a sprinkle. The examples that are cited in the entry for “whisp” speak of a “whisp of wind” or a “whisp of rain.” “Whisp” probably has onomatopoetic roots and may be influenced by (if not derived from) “whisper.” “Whisp” is not a well-known or widely-used word in modern English. The OED marks it as “rare.” The citations in COCA and BNC combined provide barely a dozen examples of “whisp” and “whispy,” and almost all of these are mistakes (more on this in a moment). My spelling checker doesn’t know the words-while I am typing this it is highlighting “whisp” as a misspelling. The adverb “whispy” unknown to any dictionary I have access to.
So why, then, if the word is so rare, does Google report hundreds of millions of hits for “whisp” and hundreds of thousands of hits for “whispy?” The answer lies in a simple error. People commonly use “whisp” when they mean “wisp” and “whispy” when they mean “wispy.” This error even escapes editors, as the citations in COCA and BNC indicate. The BNC has an excerpt from a glamour mag, for example, that describes a new hairdo as “an elegant upswept style with whispy tendrils.” “Wisp” often means a thin strip, a thready streak, something unsubstantial (e.g., a wisp of a girl), meanings that are allusions to the original sense of “wisp” as a bundle of straw. So the “whispy tendrils” in the magazine piece should have been “wispy tendrils.”
Arguably, switching “whisp” for “wisp” creates an eggcorn because of the overlap in meaning of the two words. But given the rareness of “whisp” (Once you remove the “whisp/wisp” errors from COCA and BNC, the frequencies in two corpuses suggest that “wisp” is hundreds of time more common than “whisp.”), it’s hard to believe that those who substitute the rare “whisp” for the more widely known “wisp” have semantical motivations. Chances are they have simply misspelled “wisp.”2
“Will o’ the whisp,” then, probably follows the same contours. As much as I would like to think that the person using “will o’ the whisp” has an image of a swamp light being blown about by a whisp of wind, the utterer probably has the metaphorical extensions of “wisp” in mind and is thinking of the mythical swamp denizen as someone insubstantial, a mere wisp of smoke.
Examples of “will o’ the whisp:”
Post on a blog award site: “And in states where there’s proper civil control of militaries, having a Defence Minister (or indeed Prime MInister) who’s not in love with the idea of the will-o-the-whisp of military ’solutions’ to political problems.”
Comment on a political blog: “you will always be chasing the will-o-the-whisp ‘sin’ of inefficiency on the horse of civic ‘virtue’ ”
Post on a photog forum: “You’re chasing a will o’the whisp but you’ll never catch it.”
(1) The eggcorn database also has an entry for “willow the wisp” as a replacement for the first words of “will o’ the wisp.”
(2) The frequency of “whisp” as a replacement for “wisp” suggests that “whisp” will soon appear, if it hasn’t already appeared, as an alternate spelling of “wisp” in more progressive dictionaries. At which point this post is toast.
Last edited by kem (2015-09-21 14:21:43)
Hatching new language, one eggcorn at a time.
I’m delighted to find a new word – I have only a shorter OED which is entirely whispless – yet I find that online dictionaries, (all US I think) define ‘whisp’ as “a flock of snipe” rather than “a slight blast or a puff or a sprinkle” (a slight blast?)
As one of those sad souls with a inexplicable weakness for collective nouns – a hover of trout, siege of herons, murmuration of starlings etc – I was under the impression that it was a walk of snipe; the tantalising possibility is raised that there may be a host of AmEnglish alternatives I am unaware of.
I reluctantly agree that any whisp eggcornicity is inadvertent, for superstitious insertion of a hypercorrective aitch is surprisingly common:
Hot tub took 4 hrs to heat up, TV changed channels by itself & the front bushes had SEVERAL whasps nests. and when you are allergic to whasps.. thats scary. ...
f I had three whishes I would wish for a Mustang convertible and to win a contest and get $999999999999999 and to go to the best place ever, Heaven. ...
nly problem was one of the wheels being really whobbly. ... The paint is smooth and the overall build quality is superb, except for that whobbly wheel. ...
There’s a lot of great stuff in this issue, and it maintains the biting whiticism and no-holds-barred speak-your-mind style of the previous issues. ...