Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Heebie-Jeebies

The Heebie-Jeebies

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 another 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 and 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,


  1. "Woolies" makes perfect sense. Some things really are better in the age of synthetic everything. Most wool feels just awful against your skin. It also makes sense that "jitters" would be related to chattering.

    1. Hi Anne,
      I agree, I love the ideas of willies being born of woolies. I was, however, surprised to discover that whimwhams is the preferred spelling of a word I learned as wimwams (alas, only the secondary spelling).

  2. I've never heard of "whimwhams".I thought of the Jitterbug when you defined "jitters" as extreme nervousness. I wonder if it was the older generation who named the dance.

  3. Ahoy Christine,
    YOur jitterbug assumption seems logical. I'm wondering whether whimwhams/wimwams might be geographical. It's a term I've known since my childhood (in southern California), but it wasn't one that got used much in our neighborhood in the 60's or even 70s.