Jewish World Review June 17, 2004 / 28 Sivan, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
'Whinge'; 'whole cloth'
L.H., Manchester, N.H.
You're right: "whinge'' (pronounced to rhyme with "hinge'') does mean "whine,'' and it is British. And it's not merely a British variant, but a different word with a different history.
In Middle English, "whinge'' was "whingen,'' a northern dialect version of the Old English word "hwinsian.'' "Whingen'' and "hwinsian'' were verbs used to mean "to wail or moan discontentedly,'' a sense applicable to animals as well as people.
"Whine,'' on the other hand, is traced to a different Old English word, "hwinan,'' a word that referred only to sound. It meant "to whiz,'' that is, to make a humming or whirring sound (the sound of an arrow, for example).
In the 13th century, by which time "hwinan'' had become Middle English "hwyne,'' it too meant "to wail distressfully,'' but the emphasis was still more on the sound of the wailing than on the distress. Not until the 16th century could "whine'' mean simply "to complain,'' a sense in which the whining tone was implied if not required. And today, of course, "whine'' carries two meanings, one denoting only the making of the sound ("a whining bullet''), the other referring to complaining peevishly ("stop your whining''). "Whinge'' meanwhile, has retained its original sense of "to wail or complain,'' with the emphasis somewhat stronger on the discontentment behind the complaint than on its tone.
Most of the time, the verb "whine'' could be substituted anywhere "whinge'' is used, although in some American contexts the word of choice might instead be "complain,'' as in "small firms whinge that bigger ones get most of the concessions.'' In any case, on the whole even British publications prefer "whine'' to "whinge.'' Occasionally both words are used together ("whingeing and whining that they are victims of the system''). Note that when "-ing'' is added to "whinge,'' the "e'' is not dropped.
Could you explain the derivation of the term "whole cloth'' to mean "pure fabrication''? To me, "hole cloth'' would make more sense for something that is not real or true.
C.C., Flint, Mich.
The original literal meaning of "whole cloth'' was "a piece of cloth all in one piece as manufactured or woven, before it has been cut.'' The figurative sense, where "made out of whole cloth'' or a similar phrase means "completely made up'' or "completely without basis,'' first appeared around 1840. As you say, it might seem that any figurative reference to cloth as a fabric of lies ought to refer to something less substantial, but in fact "wholeness'' or "completeness'' is just the point. A story made out of whole cloth is a story woven completely of falsehood with no break in the pattern from beginning to end.
If the association still isn't clicking with that explanation, it's because there's been a subtle change over the years in the way the expression is employed. In early examples of the expression we often see a direct reference to a lie or an untruth of some sort, as in "What a fib! It's all made out of whole cloth.'' A variation, early on, was to omit the direct reference to untruth so that a statement said to be "made of whole cloth'' was simply understood to be a lie.
Gradually the reference became even more oblique; "made up of whole cloth'' meant simply "completely made up,'' and what was made up did not necessarily constitute a lie - it might be simply a made-up word or an original tale. Some of our most recent examples of the phrase give it even broader applications. That which is "created'' and "invented'' is not always a thing composed of words. We sometimes now see this old expression used in contexts like "We cannot create supporters out of whole cloth,'' meaning that we cannot simply conjure them up out of nothing.
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