WOBBLY.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the I.W.W. (I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you and me), and I enjoyed this thorough discussion of the origin of their nickname, Wobblies. Conclusion:

All of our research has shown so far that the origin of the term Wobbly cannot be determined, and so we have to unfortunately admit that we don’t honestly know the answer. Though the true origin of the epithet “Wobbly” remains a mystery, most of us IWW members gladly use it to describe ourselves, because the term has become an integral part of the IWW’s history and culture.

I admire their restraint and their dedication to accurate documentation, especially striking in people who are not professional lexicographers. Thanks, Kári!

Comments

  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    When I started railroading on the Southern Pacific in 1963 the (much smaller) Western Pacific was generally called “the Wobbly.” I think “wobbly” was a jocular way of saying “W,” and got applied to the IWW, as to the Route of the California Zephyr, for no other reason than that they had W’s in their name.

  2. Back in the ’60′s, I was a proofreader for my college newspaper, and the resident radical on the paper’s staff organized all the proofreaders into an IWW local. We never went on strike, but it did create a dilemma for me when I had my draft physical– we were all handed a form that asked whether we’d ever had anything to do with subversive organizations, as defined by the ‘attorney general’s list’. Of course, the IWW was on the list, so I just neglected to answer that question. I don’t think anyone noticed.

  3. Thanks for the historical reminder. Joe Hill would turn over in his grave if he could see the corporate triumph now.

  4. I always heard it was a riff on how the Chinese railroad workers said the W in IWW. Don’t know if the Chinese dialects that would have been spoken here have a W like we have in english. The context, as I heard it, was that if these laborers were asked about union affiliation, their answerr sounded a lot like “I wobbly wobbly” and an insult/shorthard referent was born.
    Could be a backformation myth, though. The IWW seems to acknowledge it, though [http://www.iww.org/culture/myths/wobbly.shtml]

  5. Gah, I didn’t see that you had referred to the same link as I mentioned. Never mind *sigh*

  6. “I think “wobbly” was a jocular way of saying “W,” …”: I remember a childhood joke based on pronouncing “w” as wubble-you. Mind you, that was some distance from the Western Pacific railroad.
    P.S. I am still amused that some people say www as “double-u, double-u, double-u”. I say “wee, wee, wee” and everyone seems to understand. Someday, no doubt, some grievance-monger will take offence on behalf of Muslims.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Does anyone say “dubya dubya dubya”?

  8. To Dearieme and Marie-Lucie: presumably in the interest of concision, some American military men say “Doubleyou doubleyou two.” It’s interesting that some people experience syllables visually (or typographically), not aurally.

  9. Jonathan Morse: It’s interesting that some people experience syllables visually (or typographically), not aurally
    What exactly do you mean by “experience”, in the expression “experience syllables aurally” ? In my neck of the woods, everything a person hears is experienced aurally, and vice versa. However, not everybody there knows what a syllable is, whether heard or seen.

  10. Marie-Lucie: most people in the US do. Almost no one says “double U.” It gets reduced in one way or another, most of the time to something resembling “dubya.”

  11. It’s probably just a nonsense word. It’s my understanding they had a whole vocabulary of their own, like a linguistic secret handshake.
    Or maybe they just knew their whole philosophy was doomed from the start.

  12. P.S. I am still amused that some people say www as “double-u, double-u, double-u”. I say “wee, wee, wee” and everyone seems to understand.
    Some people ? I’ve never heard anybody in the UK say anything but double-u. If I heard “wee,wee,wee” I’d think it was a reference to the Three Little Pigs or someone with a bladder problem.

  13. The Kiwis, sensible folk, say dub dub dub. Though it gets fewer grins than wee wee wee.
    “I’ve never heard anybody in the UK say anything but double-u”: but it is rather moronic to say an abbreviation that’s so longand slow – why not just say world wide web? Or use one of those radio alphabet thingies – “whisky, whisky whisky” would save three syllables.

  14. but it is rather moronic to say an abbreviation that’s so long and slow
    No, it’s moronic to create an abbreviation that’s so long and slow. I’ve never understood why whoever came up with “www” didn’t realize how stupid it was.
    It’s probably just a nonsense word. It’s my understanding they had a whole vocabulary of their own, like a linguistic secret handshake.
    Perhaps you didn’t notice that the linked article comes from the IWW itself, and they would presumably know if it was just a nonsense word. Also, no need to use the past tense, since they’re still around.
    Or maybe they just knew their whole philosophy was doomed from the start.
    Like I said, they’re still around.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    Marc, all the people I know in Canada pronounce “double-u” – you distinctly hear the “l” even if the word is said fast and slightly slurred. “Dubya” as popularized in a certain well-known family does not have the “l” sound. I don’t know whether this is the normal pronunciation of “double-u” in some places, or peculiar to the nickname.

  16. I too say “dub dub dub”, and only once has anyone questioned me about it. (Alas, this is not to say that only once has anyone failed to understand it. The reluctance of people to ask questions still, after half a century, manages to surprise me.)
    It’s nice, though, that the majority of sites no longer require it: “languagehat.com” works as well as “www.languagehat.com”.

  17. www certainly is less said these days – the BBC seems to have dropped it on air in reference to its sites – but I can’t for the life of me see a problem in saying double-u for w.
    Just as I had a long back and forth with the writer of a computer magazine column who insisted that “thankyou” as one word was now the common and sensible spelling, an assertion for which I could find no evidence.
    And another thing ….
    Disgusted
    Tunbridge Wells

  18. It’s particular to the nickname. It might be a Texas thing, too. My grandfather and his brothers were all named “William [Something]” and were all called by their initials: WL, WE, WJ, etc., pronounced dubya-el (actually closer to “dub-yell”), dubya-ee, etc.
    But I’ve never heard anyone say the ‘L’ in ‘double-U’ when giving a URL, since that would make it three syllables instead of the quicker two of “dubyuh.”

  19. As for the longevity of the IWW, their goals of abolishing wages and uniting workers as a class are about as dead as dead can get. They appear to have 2,000 members today. Down from a peak (in 1923!) of 100,000.
    Not the picture of vitality.

  20. But I’ve never heard anyone say the ‘L’ in ‘double-U’ when giving a URL, since that would make it three syllables instead of the quicker two of “dubyuh.”
    Are we such an overstressed society that people worry about the time lost in pronouncing three syllables rather than two ? I despair.

  21. About www:
    Nobody says “triple W” in English? (double-u or what you want).
    That’s the way we mostly say it in Argentina. Though it’s a bit different in Spain because we call this letter “doble v” and they call it “uve doble” .

  22. Not stress, necessarily, but humans tend to abbreviate when it saves time.

  23. There is now a pretty public park, with old cottonwoods and ducks in a creek, at a place where Joe Hill has been riddled with bullets. In the shadow of the spruces stands a historic marker. The plaque speaks of polygamists who served time here for their faith. Not a word about the wobblies. How do you properly translate забвение into English?

  24. There is or was a radio announcer around here who, I swear, had a bit of a speech impediment. One of the effects was to slow her down on the sound of the letter ell. “double-you” came out sort of like “double-gyou”, so you would hear “double-gyou double-gyou double-gyou” when she had to name the radio station’s website. And of course the name of the station also started with W, so it was actually “double-gyou double-gyou double-gyou dot double-you … ”

  25. Kári Tulinius says:

    In Iceland people say “vaff vaff vaff” for www which means “vee vee vee.” In our defense the letter W isn’t used in the Icelandic language (and it’s called “tvöfalt vaff” i.e. “double vee”).

  26. How do you properly translate забвение into English?
    Usually “oblivion,” but here I think “the memory hole” would be appropriate.

  27. In Iceland people say “vaff vaff vaff”, whereas in Norway it’s dogs. Germans say “vee vee vee” though, don’t they?

  28. Trond Engen says:

    It’s pretty common with “ve ve ve” in Norwegian too. Hardly anyone says “dobbeltve dobbeltve dobbeltve”, even if we have the letter in the alphabet. I’ve been saying “world wide web”, like in “world wide web languagehat com”. But of course, “vaff vaff vaff” sounds far cooler!

  29. cossacksare says:

    @Ø Is “around here” Atlanta by any chance?

  30. I’m now ashamed to have said “wee wee wee”: from now on it’ll be “three wees”.

  31. I find the fourth explanation the most convincing. Picking up a derogatory nickname and throwing it back just fits with the combative mentality. It’s not uncommon as a reverse synecdoche. Like, among schoolchildren when someone with big curly hair is called ‘Baldie’.
    By the way, the song version of Joe Hill you linked to, it’s very good, though I’ve long taken to Paul Robeson’s. As a teenager I used to listen to Joan Baez all the time, but now I find false notes – not musically, interpretatively – in her singing.

  32. All those who have a soft spot for Wobblies and Pete Seeger would enjoy today’s Radio 4 programme on The Rock Island Line.

  33. rootlesscosmo says:

    @sashura:
    I find the fourth explanation the most convincing. Picking up a derogatory nickname and throwing it back just fits with the combative mentality. It’s not uncommon as a reverse synecdoche. Like, among schoolchildren when someone with big curly hair is called ‘Baldie’.
    This doesn’t explain “wobbly” for the railroad otherwise known as “the WP.” I looked for evidence that the IWW had had a particularly strong presence in that railroad’s workforce but never found any. I agree that “Wobbly,” during the IWW’s most active years, would have been a highly charged word, of pride or obloquy according to the speaker’s views, but I still think the origin was in the use of “wobbly” for “w,” because that explanation offers an account of additional data.

  34. Atlanta
    No, Boston.

  35. This doesn’t explain “wobbly” for the railroad otherwise known as “the WP.”
    No reason why it should, of course.

  36. Sashura: Thanks for the pointer to Radio 4 which I normally listen to non-stop but was out for lunch today. Loved some of the older recordings, particularly the jailhouse one, but of the modern ones, can’t beat Lonnie’s for me.

  37. you are welcome, Paul.
    I found a Russian fan-site with an image of the IWW poster that says ‘I Will Win’ – IWW. There is also a good translation of Joe Hill into Russian, and a translation of Hill’s satirical adaptation of ‘Tipperary’ and an audio of ‘Tipperary’ in Russian. I’ve bookmarked the links on another machine, will post later.

  38. I’m sure I must have mentioned here before that in Welsh “www” is pronounced “oo oo oo”, like a stereotypical chimpanzee – but if I haven’t, I have now.

  39. The Bristol suburb of Lawrence Weston is referred to as “El Dub”. Took me a while…

  40. garage storage cabinets says:

    When next I read a blog article, I am hoping that it won’t let me down as much as this one did. I mean, I know it was my choice to read it, but somehow I bizarrely thought that you’d have something well considered to say. All I saw is a heapof moaning about something that you could rectify if you werent too preoccupied desiring attention.

  41. John Emerson says:

    The spambot seems to have taken my admonition to heart.

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