What’s A Whippersnapper?

Sometimes I just don’t know where these things come from. Case in point. Recently, my son has been using the word “whippersnapper”. I don’t know why. I don’t recall running into it in a book (whether we’ve read it to him or he’s read it to himself), and I don’t remember hearing it on any of the shows he watches. But, there it is. Whippersnapper. And one day, as we were piling out of the car and he’s been using the word in a song he’s been making up, he asks the fateful question. “What’s a whippersnapper?”

“It’s an old word some people used to use to refer to children,” my wife says. Or maybe I said it. Honestly, it’s been just long enough that I don’t remember.

“Oh,” he says. “Why?”

Go on. Why?

Yeah. I got nothing.

Pretty short article, then.

Well, let’s start with the actual definition of a whippersnapper. Maybe that will help. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a diminutive, insignificant, or presumptuous person”, and then indicate that the first known use was CE 1700. So I can see why it was used in an insulting fashion in all the books I’ve seen it in. It is an insult.

Then again, maybe it would be more correct to describe it as condescending than insulting. The Oxford Dictionaries define it as “a young and inexperienced person considered to be presumptuous or overconfident”. Meanwhile, Vocabulary.com defines it as “someone who is younger than you are but also irritatingly overconfident and impertinent, like your little smart aleck  cousin”. Based on that definition, I’d describe it as a versatile word that can be insulting, condescending, or both. Vocal tone is a magnificent thing, after all.

Still, that’s a weird word. Where did it come from?

Good question. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us the following about the word:

whipper-snapper (n.)

also whippersnapper, 1670s, apparently a “jingling extension” [OED] of *whip-snapper “a cracker of whips,” or perhaps an alteration of snipper-snapper (1580s). Compare also late 16c. whipperginnie, a term of abuse for a woman.

So that’s clear as mud. Right? Although that “jingling extension” suggests an origin as a dismissive way of describing an annoying little thing that makes a lot of noise and isn’t particularly necessary. That’s entirely my speculation, but I feel good about it.

Whipper… ginnie?

That one’s really obscure. The various online dictionaries I normally use failed me entirely, because when they referenced it at all they just mentioned it as a feminine variant of whippersnapper. the only real clue I found was a Quora article titled Maritime Piracy: What does the phrase “Crack the Jenny’s daughter” mean in Caribbean pirate lingo? Near the end of the article, we get this paragraph:

Nor do the definitions of jenny that I have seen. It may be a reference to the itching or spinning jenny, which coarse slang meant a vagina in the 19th century and if so crack means, among other things, to deflower. At various times jenny has also meant a donkey, a young woman, a hot-water bottle and a housebreaker’s tool (a variant on the more commonly used jemmy). There is also whipperginnie, which was an old word for a woman (apparently based on a card-game known as ‘whip her jenny’). Jenny can also be an abbreviation of standard English engine (thus the mechanical spinning jenny, invented by James Hargreaves in 1764, which helped revolutionize weaving in factories), and specifically a generator (but neither were exactly central to pirate world). And none of them naturally have a ‘daughter’, of whatever the variety.

It’s tempting to try to relate “whipperginnie” to the spinning jenny, in the same way that wooden shoes (sabots) became associated with people who broke industrial equipment as a form of protest. But the relationship with the card game “whip her jenny” makes more sense.  Sadly, I couldn’t find the rules for that game anywhere, so I have no idea what the context is.  I suspect though, based on the slang meaning of “jenny” described in the quote, that whipperginnie had a fairly obscene meaning – much like a certain modern four-letter word, starting with c, that is used to refer to ‘uppity’ women today.

So let’s not go and use it now.  All right?