Wordplay Wednesday

A weekly post about the wacky and wonderful world of words.

Here we are. This is the first in my new weekly posts about the wacky, zany, fascinating, tangled mess that is language. These posts will mainly be about the English language, since that’s the one that I know most about. But no doubt there will be others coming down the track that contain tidbits from other languages as well.

Let’s start with one of the words I used in this very post’s subheading. Wacky. I typed that word almost without thinking, but then I had a second look at it and I thought, wait, does wacky have an h in it? Since I would be very embarrassed to have a mistake in my subheading, I turned to my favourite dictionary: Google.

I don’t think I’m the first person to ever turn to Google with this question:

“Wacky or whacky” was the first thing to come up when I typed in “wacky or.” I was also mildly amused by most of the other top suggestions, and it was difficult not to go ahead and click on “wacky oregon laws” or “wacky oreo flavors.”

Anyway, so it turns out that apparently, while whacky is the original version, wacky is the much more commonly used version now. In fact you can see here that WordPress (or is it my browser?) doesn’t want me to use whacky…it prefers wacky:

But why do we have two versions of this word?

Well according to Wikipedia, there are two possible origins for this word. The first one is that it comes from whack, which back in the day meant someone who hit their head often on something and thus became a bit silly. OK, well that’s interesting.

The second theory is that it’s an alternative of wacke, “A soft, earthy, dark-coloured rock or clay derived from the alteration of basalt” (thanks, Wikipedia). Although this theory could certainly explain how we came to have the spelling wacky, I have to admit I find the first theory a whole lot more plausible.

I’m going to avoid going off on a tangent here by thinking out loud about whether “wacke” is where we got “wax” from…

I ended up running a Google ngram, and I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t see the two lines for wacky and whacky crossing over and running apart from each other.

It looks like wacky has always been the more well-used version of this word. I would hazard a guess that whacky is kind of a deviation, a mistake that people make because they assume that wacky is spelled with an h just like the similar-sounding (and probably related from back in the day) whack. With our tendency to prefer simplifying the language rather than making it more complicated, it’s probably easy to understand why the pesky h was dropped or was never included to begin with.

All this to say, welcome to Wordplay Wednesday, my first weekly post about the wacky and wonderful world of words. And from now on, I probably won’t have any more trouble remembering which way to spell wacky.