Thursday, June 28, 2018



Whisk broom. Kitchen whisk. Whiskers. Whiskey. 

All related? Not quite.

It seems whisk’s initial foray into English happened in the 1300s. It came from an Old Norse word meaning a wisp of hay — something to sweep with — imagine a rustic whisk broom. The Old Norse word’s source (a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to turn or twist) is also the source of Sanskrit, Old English, German, Danish & Czech words meaning respectively, a noose, a brush, a broom, to clean, & a wisp of straw.

Whisk’s initial foray into English involved no use of the letter H. The H appeared in whisk sometime in the 1570s. 

By the 1400s, whisk (at the time, wisk) could also be used as a verb, meaning to move with a rapid, sweeping motion. In the 1500s whisk/wisk picked up the meaning to brush or sweep lightly. 

Sometime around 1600, the similarity between a mustache and a broom or brush gave birth to the words whisker & whiskers. In time, whiskers generalized to mean any facial hair.

The word whisk was also used in the 1600s to refer to a popular card game we now call whist.

Though we’ve lost this particular meaning, back in the 1600s a woman’s neckerchief or scarf could be called a whisk.

By 1660, whisk also meant an implement for beating eggs.

In the 1800s, the word whisk could be used to denote a swarm of insects. A shame to have lost this one, I’d say.

The apparently related words whisky & whiskey have no relationship at all to whisk & whisker. In the 1700s, folks speaking Gaelic enjoyed the water of life, which they called uisge beatha. In usage, that latter part of the term faded away, and uisge, Anglicized, became whiskey. Though many modern drinkers embrace the distinction between the two spellings — whiskey (distilled in Ireland) & whisky (distilled in Scotland) — the Scots originally spelled theirs the same as the Irish. Scotch whisky mysteriously lost its E sometime in the 1800s.

If any of these caught you by surprise, please let me know in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, the OED, Collins Dictionary, Wordnik, & Etymonline.


  1. I remember trying to figure out what a whisk was on a women's costume when I was in the theater. I kept imagining some kind of decorative whisk broom. I was so glad to find out it was a regular old scarf.

    That's fascinating about the Scots losing the "e" in whisky fairly late in their history. No doubt some Scotsman lost it while wending his drunken way home from some Victorian pub.

    1. Hey Anne -- One must wonder whether your imagined drunk Scotsman was decked out in a whisk.