Mind your language

Whipsmart: a new cliché that’s beginning to smart

But is it the speed or the sting that counts?

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

A friend of my husband’s asked me to explain why the usually impeccable critic Francine Stock had recently used the term whipsmart. That I cannot tell, but I do know that he has identified a cliché in the casting. Everyone is suddenly using it.

Joaquin Phoenix gave a ‘whipsmart performance as a genius philosophy professor’. Of the heroine of the film Juno another critic wrote that ‘at 16, the whipsmart schoolgirl finds herself pregnant after one encounter with her best friend’. Someone who seems unclear about the meaning of verbose wrote about the ‘whipsmart, verbose political drama’ of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. And what should be ‘chock-full of whipsmart dialogue’ but Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, would you believe?

I had not noticed whipsmart before and hardly know what it is supposed to mean. I take it that most people who use it mean ‘clever’ by smart. That goes with the American origins of the term. But even in America, whip-smart (as it was generally spelled) has often been applied to clothing over the past 70 years or so. In the same period it also meant ‘sharply clever’, with ‘the wit of a toastmaster’ as the Boston Sunday Globe put it in 1942.

What’s so clever about a whip? The phrase smart as a whip goes back further than whip-smart. In Ohio in 1821 someone wrote about sisters who were ‘as lively and as smart as a whip’. In a parallel phrase, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote of a woman ‘tough as Inger rubber, and smart as a steel trap’. So it would seem that the speed of the whip or steel trap was the likeness in the simile.

But the word smart had for centuries borne the primary meaning of ‘stinging’, as with a rod or whip. In Psalm 32, the Sternhold and Hopkins metrical version has: ‘Both night and day thy hand on me / So grievous was and smart.’ In the meantime, a specialised meaning ‘lively’ had developed, and by the 19th century anyone under orders could expect to be told ‘Look smart!’ as an alternative to ‘Look lively!’ But just now, the smart money would be on the smartest writers laying off the overused whipsmart.

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  • Add it to the list: vibrant, appropriate, train station, going forward …

  • teepee

    ‘Fashion forward’ is one that perplexes me, but then I’m easily befuddled.