English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top


My head is in a whirl.

makes sense to me (whirl: a movement of something spinning round and round) I wonder about

give something a whirl

which means to try something to see if you like it or can do it.

I don't get the connection between whirl and to try. Where does is it come from?

share|improve this question
I've always associated it with asking someone to dance. I don't know if that's really legit, but it makes sense to me. When you give something a whirl, you haven't made a commitment yet, you're just giving it (her or him) a whirl as a test run (but an enjoyable test run). – Julia Apr 12 '12 at 4:10
up vote 1 down vote accepted

From etymonline for whirl,

figurative sense of "confused activity" is recorded from 1550s. Colloquial sense of "tentative attempt" is attested from 1884, Amer.Eng.

It may be that the "confused activity" sense developed into the "tentative attempt" sense; etymonline does not indicate, and apparently doesn't address the question of origin of give something a whirl. But one can see that the sense "make a tentative attempt to do something" is not far from the current meaning (to try doing something one is unfamiliar with or hasn't tried before or is uncertain about). There is sourceless speculation at phrases.org.uk that the phrase arose from spinning a roulette wheel, or a "wheel-of-fortune", or a "whirlygig" colonial toy. Also see entry in thefreedictionary, which quotes the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms as saying of whirl,

to try something; Usage notes: often used in the form give it a whirl: We've always wanted to take a cruise in the Caribbean, so we decided to give it a whirl.

share|improve this answer
It's like "take it for a spin". – David Schwartz Apr 11 '12 at 10:38
The wheel of fortune interpretation makes sense to me. – Bradd Szonye Apr 30 '13 at 21:37

I've always thought it was a reference to how you started the early Ford Model T's which you had to crank the engine by hand to start them. It was very hard and tiring process particularly in cold weather. Hence the saying "do you want to give it a whirl"

share|improve this answer
Interesting theory; do you have any reliable references that back it up? – MετάEd Apr 30 '13 at 21:12

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.