In an email I received from an extended family member, she remarked that she had "heard through the grapevine" that I was quite the "home-making whirling dervish." This person and I have a (distant but) fond enough relationship that I know that she was not trying to insult me. However I was curious whether she was complementing me or teasing me.

Here is the background information: I am known to hate cooking, and I do not have children. On the other hand, I do like home design, creating comfortable, attractive, and personalized surroundings for myself and anyone who might want help (the second, non-cooking, part I know about myself, but don't know if that would be something widely known or discussed by others...I would assume not).

This question is not something that has bothered me, but it has made me curious about the connotations/ slant of the description "whirling dervish" and that knowledge would help me decipher whether she was being jokingly sarcastic or actually letting me know people have said nice things about my "homemaking" abilities. Again, a silly situation, but an interesting language question.

closed as primarily opinion-based by FumbleFingers, tchrist, user66974, choster, Drew Jan 20 '15 at 3:29

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    In the US I would say that "whirling dervish" has a neutral or perhaps slightly positive connotation, suggesting that someone is a "whirlwind of activity", always busy, etc. (Of course, it could always be used sarcastically, but there's no indication above that this is the case.) (On the other hand, if I were to be described as a "whirling dervish" I would know that was sarcastic.) – Hot Licks Jan 19 '15 at 17:43
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    A separate but interesting question is whether this be objectionable as cultural appropriation from the Sufi ascetics of Turkey. – Brian Donovan Jan 19 '15 at 18:07
  • @Hot Licks: Chez moi, I'm well-known as the White Tornado - but if I'm honest, I have to admit it's probably a sarcastic usage! :) – FumbleFingers Jan 19 '15 at 18:09
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    The central notion of "whirling dervish" (as I understand the figurative use of the term) is of a person with boundless and irrepressible energy. In the context of home-making, the phrase is almost certainly intended as a slightly playful compliment. – Sven Yargs Jan 19 '15 at 18:12
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    It seems that the majority of comments and answers received suggested a general consensus within the community that descriptive use of the term "whirling dervish" (outside of the context of a religious, cultural, or historical discussion) is simply metaphorical and descriptive. As such, any positive or negative connotations that may be intended by its use (speaker) or interpreted (by listener) is merely a matter of subjective and personal mental sets. Thanks – user106741 Jan 20 '15 at 16:03

It is a simile (like a whirling dervish) where the metaphorical sense seems to have strayed far from the original meaning.

The dervishes are an austere Islamic sect of Sufis, dating from the 12th century, and noted for their asceticism. The OED only makes passing reference to whirling and to howling dervishes, and does not even touch the figurative use.

A Muslim friar, who has taken vows of poverty and austere life. Of these there are various orders, some of whom are known from their fantastic practices as dancing or whirling, and as howling dervishes

I doubt that anyone who has described someone as a whirling dervish has a notion of asceticism, nor of piety, in their mind.

Were I so described I would take comfort from the idea that I was a person of activity, but disappointment that I was seen as perhaps scatterbrained.

  • Indeed, I doubt whether most folks using the term even think of its religious origins at all any more. – tchrist Jan 19 '15 at 23:36
  • @tchrist This is the problem with metaphor. People carry on using expressions long after the original meaning has become obscured by time. A well-known historian was recently, as part of an educational experiment, teaching some failing teenagers. He brought in the laundry equipment, copper, tin-tub, and an old mangle which his mother used in the 1940s. One of the kids knew nothing about a mangle, other than the verb 'getting mangled' i.e. the sort of thing that happens to you in a game of rugby. – WS2 Jan 20 '15 at 16:27

Dervish refers to a religious sect of Islam.


A member of a Muslim (specifically Sufi) religious order who has taken vows of poverty and austerity. Dervishes first appeared in the 12th century;

"Whirling Dervish" originally referred to members of this sect who performed a religious dancing ritual, which this youtube link shows to be quite fascinating:

they were noted for their wild or ecstatic rituals and were known as dancing, whirling, or howling dervishes according to the practice of their order.

If you were a Whirling Dervish, you would not be confused by the expression, so your friend likely applied the expression to you metaphorically. The metaphorical use of whirling dervish can swing both ways.

In the positive direction, focus tends toward the religious devotion of the Dervish expressed in the energy and unique skills of the dancing ritual:

2.1 A term of endearment for an energetic, bouncy person.

This seems like a reasonable interpretation of your friends remark: your energetic devotion to home-making and your skills are admirable.

In the negative direction, focus tends toward the irritation of an "erratic foreign activity". This might imply a certain extent of egotism on the part of the speaker.

1.0 A person whose behavior resembles a rapid, spinning object. These actions are often spastic fidgeting and incessant babbling. The actions of the whirling dervish are irritating and annoying, often exhausting other people in the immediate vicinity.

2.2 A spastic, white dancer.

2.3 Also refers to someone that is messy and chaotic, in a cute way.

From your description it does not seem likely that your household is "messy or chaotic in a cute kind of way." It is not a linguistic opinion, but it seems best to give our friends the benefit of the doubt unless they confirm a negative intention.

  • It also appropriates the name or term for a specific religious group and uses it as a metaphor for unrelated, unreligious activities. It is possible some adherents to that sect might take offense. Or not. – bib Jan 19 '15 at 18:26
  • That is an unfortunate consequence of religious intolerance across the ideological spectrum. – ScotM Jan 19 '15 at 18:32

According to Urban Dictionary:

A person whose behavior resembles a rapid, spinning object. These actions are often spastic fidgeting and incessant babbling. The actions of the whirling dervish are irritating and annoying, often exhausting other people in the immediate vicinity. For Example: that woman must have taken her son's Ritalin. She is behaving like a whirling dervish.


A term of endearment for an energetic, bouncy person. A spastic, white dancer. Also refers to someone that is messy and chaotic, in a cute way. For example: Sally's excited jumping is adorable, she's such a whirling dervish!

So, it depends on how you use it. Hope the examples cleared it.

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    Ugh! Am I the only one who cringes when I see that the Urban Dictionary is used as a source here? Granted, though, some newer words and expressions can only be found there...this not really being one of them, IMO. – Kristina Lopez Jan 19 '15 at 19:55
  • @Kristina Lopez I would venture to say that Urban Dictionary is much more useful than the "actual" dictionary when it comes to how people actually talk (colloquially). I can't remember the last time I looked something up in the "actual" dictionary, but often find myself at Urban Dictionary. In the internet age, a new word can be coined and found in wide circulation the very next day. Only a crowd-sourced and crowd-approved reference can keep up with this. Welcome to the future. – Kik Jan 19 '15 at 21:12
  • @Kik, that is very true for newly coined words and new definitions for old words but it's reliability, exactly because it is crowdsourced, is as questionable as Wikipedia. Again, though I consider both to be a resource, I rarely use either as a stand-alone reference and cross-check facts before relying on the information obtained from either of them. – Kristina Lopez Jan 19 '15 at 21:30

"She'll outpester any pest, drive a hornet from its nest.
She could throw a whirling dervish out of whirl."

These are lines from "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" (Sound of Music).

On the face of it, it's not exactly a compliment. But the reference to "whirling dervish" also contains a certain grudging admiration.

I would consider such a statement a "double edged sword."

  • I find the interpretation of the line from The Sound of Music problematic. At worst the emotional response to the whirling dervish is neutral, and the irritation was expressed at Maria, who disrupted that activity. Since the "whirling dervish" was a religious feat of mental and physical concentration, the emotional posture of the nuns was likely intended to be positive, making their irritation at Maria, all the more intense. – ScotM Jan 19 '15 at 18:22
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    Yeah, Tom, I don't know why that song didn't come to me. Scot -- I think in this case the reference to "whirling dervish" is essentially literal and neutral -- not that she is a whirling dervish, literally or figuratively, but that she's so active that it would befuddle even a (literal) whirling dervish. – Hot Licks Jan 19 '15 at 18:34