Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Whippersnapper

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 16, 2015

A whippersnapper is an inexperienced person who is irritatingly overconfident with his or her abilities, sometimes to the point of being offensive.  Yes, whippersnappers usually act as if they’re very important and believe themselves to know better than their elders. What’s more, they’re usually impolite and brazen, lazy, and lack motivation.

Even though the death knell was sounded for the term whippersnapper back in newspaper columns of the 1960s, the word cropped up in an article by Gary Borders entitled, “Modern Billingsgate Betrays Puerile Imbecility Of Pundits” which was published in the Rome News-Tribune on March 4, 2006. The article took on the subject of television news programs that features guests and hosts yelling angrily with each other instead of discussing matters in a logical fashion with facts to back up their opinions.

In his article, he wrote about the elderly Presbyterian minister, the Reverend James Russell (died 10 August 1847) who was the last editor of the Red Lander newspaper in San Augustine, Texas.

Russell had been running the newspaper for about a year when a young whippersnapper started a competing weekly, The Shield. Henry Kendall, who had a bad habit of stealing Russell’s hired help, owned the paper. His editor moonlighted as president of the other university in town, started by the Methodists. San Augustine could support neither two newspapers nor two universities.

The Reverend James Russell began to print some nasty comments in his editorials with increasing intensity. He was responsible for some of the insults that we still hear thrown about in the media today: right-wing, liberal, secularist, and religious right.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: When the Reverend James Russell used his newspaper to state that Henry Kendall’s mother was a “woman of easy virtue” and his father was a liar and a murderer, Henry Kendall was incensed at the audacity the Reverend had to publish such insults. Ten days after the insults were printed in the Reverend’s newspaper, Henry Kendall shot him dead as the Reverend walked out of his office. The killing was noted as the first editorial killing in Texas.

In the Milwaukee Journal edition of June 28, 1967, even journalist Robert W. Wells lamented the demise of the term in his column, “All Is Wells.” In the column published that day he decried the fact that the literary pendulum had swung in favor of one syllable nouns and verbs drawn from graffiti of the day. With regards to whippersnapper, he wrote:

Thirty years earlier, on May 30, 1937, the St. Petersburg Times published O.O. McIntyre’s regular column, “Whip Snaps Of A Whippersnapper” where O.O. McIntyre reflected on a number of things. He wrote about the “best darned quartet you ever heard – there’s five of them.” He wrote about a woman’s model husband who “doesn’t drink, smoke or run after woman – just sorta stupid.” He wrote about how many residents in France were against the reduced utopian 40-hour work week that left people with too much time on their hands to do nothing. And that’s just some of what O.O. McIntyre wrote in his column of May 30, 1937.

There was an era when some crusty character — the heroine’s father, usually — could be relied on to open every discussion of juvenile delinquency by shouting: “You young whippersnapper!”

This confrontation between youth and age made for tense drama, but it has been abandoned. The whippersnapper is apparently as extinct as the New Zealand moa.

Whippersnapper was a favorite expression of English novelist, journalist, editor and educationalist George Manville Fenn (3 January 1831 – 26 August 1909) and appeared in many of his novels. It was also a favorite expression of influential poet, critic and editor William Ernest Henley (23 August 1849 – 11 July 1903). And it was a favorite expression of English popular novelist, Mary Elizabeth Braddon (4 October 1835 – 4 February 1915), author of her sensation novel “Lady Audley’s Secret” published in 1862.

In the third volume of the Association Medical Journal of 1855 edited by Dr. John Rose Cormack, M.D. and published by the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association of London (England) the expression was used in the article, “Medical Practice Among The Poor.” It had originally been published in “Household Words” on October 21, 1854.

There are the young men entitled whippersnappers; to whom the poor are said by Messieurs Souchong, Sirloin, and Wick, to be shamefully and neglectfully handed over. Mr. Souchong, Sirloin, and their friends refuse on their own parts to take counsel of a whippersnapper; so do their betters with considerable unanimity. They wait until he has more experience; that is to say, until he has tried his prentice hand sufficiently among the poor. He would be happy enough to attend viscounts and bankers; but he is bidden by society to try his hand first among beggars.

Going back to 1742, English author and magistrate Henry Fielding (22 April 1707 – 8 October 1754) wrote, “The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams” which included whippersnapper in his book.  The book is written in comic prose, and tells the story of the absent-minded parson Abraham Adams and his foot man, Joseph Andrews as they travel home from London.

“What dost thou think of Ms. Andrews?”

“Why, I think,” says Slipslop, “he is the handsomest, most properest man I ever saw; and if I was a lady of the greatest degree, it would be well for some folks. Your ladyship may talk of customs, if you please; but I am confidous there is no more comparison between young Mr. Andrews, and most of the young gentlemen who come to your ladyship’s house in London – a parcel of whippersnapper sparks; I would sooner marry our old parson Adams. Never tell me what people say, whilst I am happy in the arms of him I love. Some folks rail against other folks because other folks have what some folks would be glad of.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Henry Fielding, along with his half-brother, Sir John Fielding (16 September 1721 – 4 September 1780) who was also a magistrate as well as a social reformer, founded London’s first police force.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: British author, Sarah Fielding (8 November 1710 – 9 April 1768) was Henry Fielding’s sister. She wrote “The Little Female Academy” which is considered the first novel in English written especially for children.

In the 1600s, whipperginnie was a derogatory term for a woman, and snippersnapper was a derogatory term for a man.

It’s most likely that people blended whipperginnie and snippersnapper together during the mid-1600s and the new word was whippersnapper. It would make sense since the definition for whipperginnie (female) and snippersnapper (male) are the same, and both whipperginnie and snippersnapper share an identical definition with whippersnapper.  By the time Henry Fielding was using the word in his novel of 1742, the word was recognized among the general population which means that it was established in the English language as being a legitimate word with a recognized definition.

Idiomation therefore pegs whippersnapper to the late 1600s in light of these facts.

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