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whimperative n. a command or request phrased as a polite or indirect question. Also wh- imperative. Editorial Note: This word is especially used in the linguistic study of discourse. Thanks to Ben Zimmer for helping to clarify this definition. Etymological Note: wh + imperative. The “wh” is a wildcard formative for the interrogatives which, who, when, what, etc. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the use of “wh-” in this way to 1957 and cites Noam Chomsky as author of the first use recorded so far. (source: Double-Tongued Dictionary)

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  • The etymology proposed for WHIMPERATIVE appears to overlook the pun on “whimper”, which dominates the term and is indicative of the sniveling, cowardly way such orders are given.

  • I agree with Carl G, the pun is part of the word. And maybe taking it a step further—academic discourse doesn’t have to listen to itself, one is “professing.” But in more real-world discourse connotations, puns, and sound associations are much more likely to influence how words or phrases come into existence and whether they are going to last. Also, I hope we stop hearing the whimperative “if you will?” ASAP.

  • The pun’s not part of the word as it is used in linguistics. It’s accidental and only interpreted as such post hoc. If you read linguistic texts you’ll find that the “wh-” is coupled with a long string of terms that have specific linguistic meanings, just as “imperative” does. Examples suggested by Ben, mentioned in the editorial note, are:





  • Grant Barrett is absolutely right and correct. But, paradoxically, so are the other commentators. They are obviously unlearned, common folks without any background in etymology and linguistics. But if the word does become adopted in common speech, their folk etymology will prevail, regardless of Grant Barrett’s scientific evidence. Common folks construct their own meaning with the apparent connotations at their immediate and intuitive disposal. All the mythologies and legends develop in the same fashion, and word meanings as well. If there is no record of roots and origins, the folk etymology does prevail and become the norm. In this case the “whimper” association will become the basis of the commonly accepted meaning. The public forgets the origins of practically everything, and common folks’ meanings and interpretations become the rule. This is very true for instance of American history, that most Americans have no knowledge of, but reinterpret according to their own whims. “The Cuban crisis? That was way before my time. Was it when the US decided to go without cigars? And Castro got really pissed off at us?” Forgetting their origins back in the mist of times is the way cultures,languages and religions grow and develop. Everything becomes a given present, and it takes a lot of scientific research,sleuthing and interpretation to try to get back to the foundations, if at all possible.
    ROO, linguist manqué.

  • When will the blogmeister stop whanking on dominant users? Mr. Barrett won’t give up without a bang, but why else would a word like “whimperative” [whatever its technical use among old, pre-de-constructionist, academic, if cunning, linguists] earn a place on a contemporary list built of slang, jargon, and new words, but for the pun? Just on a blogger’s whim?

    Without invoking “whimperative”’s rhetorical sarcasm, who, in this century, would waste breath [or ink] denominating a quasi-litotic, plausibly deniable illocution?  Certainly not Steven Pinker, nor, obviously, we forgetful, unlearned common folk[s], standing, intuitively [in] our [fore]ground, M. Orlean.

    By the way, do U2 remember the Cuban crisis? [I was trained to hide under a desk.]

  • It’s jargon, Geupel. I suggest you look at a dictionary or two to find the technical definition of jargon.

  • Yes, of course, Mr. Barrett, it can fall into the category, “jargon”, especially in its pejorative sense. Nonetheless, I believe that, lacking its pun, whimperative, held down by its linguistic roots, would have spent another generation in the more obscure depths of that category; along side wh-in-situ, wh-phrase, wh-movement, and wh-island; un-resurrected by thinkers like Pinker.

  • Sorry about that; but I couldn’t fail to respond to “unlearned, common folks without any background…” 
    I appreciate that you got it.

  • I don’t want to add any oil to the fire, but I couldn’t help bursting out laughing when I read Django’s remark. Touché!
    (Great name, by the way, Django)

    ROO (Rene-Olivier ORLEAN)

  • Ha!  Having only heard and not seen it until looking it up for an essay on indirect speech acts, I actually thought it was wimperative.  For me, that made perfect sense.  Frankly, I’m a little disappointed to learn of its wh- origin.

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