There are some great words out there for those moments when one feels as though death is dragging its bony finger up one’s spine. Here are a few.
Comments like, “that man gives me the willies,” were favorites of my great grandmother, Sally Rather King. This usage of willies (unlike other forms which beg for another post) came about in 1896 (a decade or two after my great grandmother was born) & is believed to have come from an earlier idiom, to give one the woolies, which was most likely a reference to the feeling of itchy wool on the skin.
The Middle English word chittern, to chitter or chatter, gave birth to the modern term the jitters, which is defined as extreme nervousness. This particular form of the word jitter didn’t enter English until 1925.
Whimwham (or wimwam) most likely came from the Old Norse term hvima, to let the eyes wander, or the related Norwegian word kvima, to flutter. In modern usage, whimwham means both a fanciful object & the jitters. The second meaning generally occurs within the phrase a case of the whimwhams.
Those of us who regularly experience the jitters, whimwhams, or willies might be labeled lily-livered, a term born in 1625 in the play Macbeth, by the ultimate coiner of words, William Shakespeare.
Then, of course, there are the heebie-jeebies. Many modern speakers of English assume that beneath the heebie-jeebies lurks anti-Semitism. This assumption is unfounded. The term heebie-jeebies was coined in 1923 by Bill De Beck, cartoonist of the comic strip “Barney Google,” and when it comes to that particular prejudice, De Beck’s work seems squeaky clean.
So folks, do all these drag-a-finger-up-the-spine words give you the heebie-jeebies, or would you rather leave a comment noting experiences you’ve had which inspire a raging case of the whimwhams?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik, The Word Detective, & Etymonline,
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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