Recently I have come across the terms “whackos” and “whack jobs” and sometimes “wackos” and “wack jobs.” These were references, of course, to certain members of Congress whose names must not be spoken. Tea, anyone?
But which word is correct? Is it “wacky” or “whacky”? Well, actually, it can be either.
Whack started as a verb, in the eighteenth century, meaning to “strike sharply.” Its origin was probably echoic, possibly derived from the earlier word thwack, from the sound of such a sharp blow. First noted as a verb in 1719, whack was used as a noun in 1737, meaning a “vigorous blow.”
By 1785 whack was used to mean a “just portion or share” of something. It is speculated that this usage originated with thieves’ sharing their loot and giving each robber his proper cut (or whack). Whack was later used to mean the agreement on which the sharing of the loot was based, and, by extension, any agreement that all parties regard as just.
As a noun referring to a “fool or crazy or eccentric person,” whacky was in use by the late nineteenth century. It probably originated to suggest that the person had been rendered senseless by a blow or “whack.” The variant wacky, without the “h” and used as an adjective, is first cited in 1935. Although the original spelling was “whacky,” the current dominant spelling is “wacky,” and if you use the older form, people are likely to think you’re wacky.
To say something is out of whack, meaning not working properly, derives from the thieves’ meaning of “agreement,” with the connotation that something is not done correctly, as it was agreed.
Out of whack is a cousin of out of kilter—and that mysterious phrase deserves a blog all its own.
Speaking of whack jobs, you need look no farther than the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who fills the bill in every respect.
Whack a wacky wicket,
Pick a pokey pocket,
Kick a khaki cricket.
Lick a lucky locket.
Back a bulky bucket,
Pack a plucky packet,
Thwack a talky tucket,
Junk a jockey jacket.
Wreck a rookie Rocket,
Block a balky Beckett,
Seek a sticky socket,
Hook a hokey Hecate.
Rake a reeky racket,
Truck a tacky ticket,
Poke a peaky packet,
Track a tricky thicket.