The Grammarphobia Blog

Double whammy

Q: This is from a recent hurricane headline in the News & Record, my local paper in Greensboro, NC: “Guilford County could see a double whammy from Florence.” So where does “double whammy” come from?

A: When “whammy” showed up in the late 1930s, it meant an evil spell or bad luck in sports slang. The term “double whammy,” a more powerful spell or misfortune, appeared in the early 1940s, followed by even more powerful whammies that were tripled and quadrupled.

The earliest example we’ve seen, cited in The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd ed.), is from the February 1937 issue of the American Legion Monthly: “Nearly every player in the game engages in some little practice which he believes will bring him good luck or put the whammy on the other fellow.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example, which is expanded here, cites The Kid From Tomkinsville (1940), the first book in John R. Tunis’s eight-novel series about the Brooklyn Dodgers:

“Interest round the field now centered in the Kid’s chances for a no-hit game, and already a low murmur rose as the stands saw inning after inning go past without a hit from the visiting club. On the bench everyone realized it too, but everyone kept discreetly quiet on account of the Whammy. Mustn’t put the Whammy on him!”

(Tunis’s book influenced several American writers, including Philip Roth, who mentions The Kid From Tomkinsville and its rookie pitcher Roy Tucker in his 1997 novel American Pastoral.)

By the way, here’s a description, cited in Paul Dickson’s baseball dictionary, of how a Cardinals trainer, Harrison J. Weaver, tried to put the whammy on a Yankee base runner.

“With right hand above the left, each fist clenched except for the pointing, hornlike index and little fingers, Weaver cast his whammy spell on Joe Gordon, the Yankee runner on second base.” (From The Gashouse Gang, 1945, by J. Roy Stockton.)

Al Capp’s use of “whammy” in his Li’l Abner comic strip helped popularize the usage. In 1951, he used both “whammy” and “double whammy” in the speech (or, rather, the speech balloons) of the zoot-suited hillbilly Evil-Eye Fleegle:

Evil-Eye Fleegle is th’ name, an’ th’ ‘whammy’ is my game. Mudder Nature endowed me wit’ eyes which can putrefy citizens t’ th’ spot! … There is th’ ‘single whammy’! That, friend, is th’ full, pure power o’ one o’ my evil eyes! It’s dynamite, friend, an’ I do not t’row it around lightly! … And, lastly—th’ ‘double whammy’—namely, th’ full power o’ both eyes—which I hopes I never hafta use.”

A couple of years after “whammy” first appeared in baseball as an evil spell, the term took on the more general sense of a problem or a misfortune. The earliest example in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from Walter Winchell’s Dec. 4, 1939, On Broadway column: “Six hundred Westchester women put the whammy on those radio romances, calling them ‘insulting.’ ”

Standard dictionaries now define “whammy” as an evil spell, a serious setback, or a calamity, though it’s usually modified when used to mean a setback or a calamity, as in this example from Oxford Dictionaries Online: “Our economy suffered a triple whammy this year—we were hit by Sars, the Iraq war, and then the world economic downturn.”

As for “double whammy,” the most common of the modified phrases, the earliest example we’ve seen is from the Aug. 13, 1941, issue of the Oakland Tribune. Here’s an excerpt from an over-the-top interview with the boxing manager Wirt Ross, who is described by the paper’s sports editor as “the most lovable con man ever to come out of the hills”:

“ ‘I’ve been taking a course in hypnotism from the famous Professor Hoffmeister of Pennsylvania. … When I gave my big police dog the evil eye … he liked to collapse, went out and nearly got himself killed by the neighbor’s pet poodle pooch. Professor Hoffmeister says I don’t get the double whammy to put on human beings until Lesson 9.”

In the early 1950s, “double whammy” took on the modern meaning of a twofold blow or setback. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the Oct. 25, 1952, issue of the Indianapolis Recorder.

An article datelined Chicago describes how the manager and co-manager of the lightweight boxing titleholder Lauro Salas “had a double whammy on them. First, their fighter lost the lightweight championship of the world. Second, they lost nearly $800 to an unidentified gunman.”

And here’s an example from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: “With the cold weather and the high cost of heating fuel, homeowners were hit with a double whammy this winter.”

Where does “whammy” ultimately come from? As Merriam-Webster explains, “The origin of whammy is not entirely certain, but it is assumed to have been created by combining wham (a solid blow) with the whimsical -y ending.”

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