16 Sep 2007, Comments Off on Someone spifflicate that whinger

Someone spifflicate that whinger

Author: Helen

Someone on Crackbook asked: “What’s your favourite word?” One of the replies was spifflicate.

When I was growing up, my Dad would often threaten to spifflicate me or my brother if we didn’t get a move on and, well, do whatever. Or conversely, stop doing whatever it was we were doing. I hadn’t heard it used in any other context, so up to that day I’d thought that it was a nonsense word he’d invented.

If I’d thought about it more I would have decided that this wasn’t very likely, as my Dad wasn’t a consumer of nonsense literature at all. But it turns out that the word comes, not from Lear or Carroll, but from the very kind of Manly Fiction which he enjoyed. After doing a double-take on finding out that spifflicate was a real world, of course, I googled.


Originally spelled spiflicate, the basic meaning is one of hurt or harm, even to the point of death, and was originally coined some time in the 18th century. Possibly a conflation word, from stifle, suffocate, spill and castigate, it quickly developed from meaning “confound, silence or dumbfound” through a reference to rough treatment, and thence came to mean the bringing of death or destruction.

Examples from Everything.com and Languagehat:

I won’t tell ye a second time – hand me that stick, or I’ll spifflicate ye” – Ernest Seton
Of the enemy, about 500 were killed, and more than 1500 made prisoners; and of the remainder, who made their escape over the walls, the greater part were cut down by the Dragoons, or spifflicated by the Lancers. – T.W.E. Holdsworth, 1840
So out with your whinger at once, and scrag Jane, while I spiflicate Johnny! – Ingoldsby Legends, 1856

The next generation of use softened the meaning and the threat somewhat, and by about 1900 it could be used in a wholly comic way to threaten punishment of unknown nature and extent, especially of children. Although the meaning was generally some sort of spanking, in our family, it had the meaning of a severe tickling, and to be threatened with spifflication meant one was in for a breathless, giggling few minutes.

But What’s a whinger? I did some more googling.

n. 1. A kind of hanger or sword used as a knife at meals and as a weapon.
The chief acknowledged that he had corrected her with his whinger.
– Sir W. Scott.

Well, who’d have thought? I always thought it meant someone who was always moaning. And corrected her with his whinger sounds a little, er, extreme.

But I digress. In America, spifflicated came to mean drunk, plastered, pissed as a newt, boiled as an owl.

They forced his teeth open, and, while a couple of them sat on his chest, they poured about a quart of corn liquor into his system. He was so spifflicated before they let him up that they had to lift him bodily and plant him in a seat. – Washington Post, 1904.

And it took me this long to find all this out. English is a very, very strange language.

Comments (0)

  • language hat says:

    In case you’re curious, whinger is a later form of whinyard ‘A short-sword, a hanger’ (“of obscure origin”), which goes back to the 15th century; some quotes:
    1663 BUTLER Hud. I. III. 480 His Pistol next he cockt anew, And out his nut~brown Whiniard drew.
    1719 D’URFEY Pills III. 320 Who wav’d his Whinyard o’er her Loyn, as if he’d gone to Knight him.
    1810 SCOTT Lady of L. I. viii, The hunter.. For the death-wound.. Muster’d his breath, his whinyard drew.
    1856-9 R. BUCHANAN Trag. Dramas, Wallace I. viii, I’d liefer Plunge this Scots whinyard in thy felon breast, Than in the heart of Turk or Saracen.

  • Helen says:

    Goodness, LH, I nearly deleted this from the spaminator because it had Pills in it! Thanks for that.

    Were you aware of the Australian meaning – a chronic complainer?

  • ThirdCat says:

    “what’s a whinger”

    I just spent the weekend with one – in the Australian sense of ‘chronic complainer’, but with that kind of whine – and because I know that the internet is not anyonymous, that’s all I’ll say. But gee, I’m glad to be home.

  • Helen says:

    Did you correct her with your whinger?
    Was bloodloss involved?

  • language hat says:

    I’m afraid I think of w(h)inge as a British expression, since I first learned it in that context. But whingeing Pom is definitely Australian!

    You might be interested in the LH posts Aussie slang and Australian word map.

    (I had to read over my earlier comment carefully to figure out where the p*lls came in!)

  • su says:

    Spiffy post! The two may be related but with almost opposite meanings. (I forget what that process is called)

  • genevieve says:

    That American use of spifflicate sounds like it could have come from Twain. Or his close friends.
    Always important to know where a whinger comes from, so you can send them back. (Dear me, did I really just type that?)

  • Ann O'Dyne says:

    ‘spifflicated’ was used for ‘tipsy’ in my family in the 1950’s.

    and whinge-ing POM’s were doing it the most then.

    I can see that for them, it was an assessment of areas where their Australian experience did not measure up to their experience in England, eg: the cakes are better in England;
    the lollies are better in England;
    the gardens are better in England …..

    and to a fair extent, I think they were right.
    Until 1957, they were right that
    even the FOOD was “better in England”. Poor things.

  • su says:

    I hadn’t heard of spifflicate for tipsy, Ann O’Dyne. Where does that leave squiffy?

  • Helen says:

    I haven’t had time to follow Language hat’s links yet, but I’d bet spifflicated and squiffy would be related.

  • Helen says:

    Ann O’Dyne, I was born in 1957. Glad I had such a salutary effect on the nation.

  • Caroline says:

    My Dad used to threaten to spiflicate us too. He also used to say ‘Right said Fred’ a phrase which turned up as the name of a band not so long ago. I believe it was the name of a radio play. I used to credit my Dad with the genius of originality in such things. Such is a father’s influence and its not like they often own up to not actually being the authors of such witticisms.

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