16

I am confused that the term "whisky" is used in the poem The Squirrel to describe a squirrel going up a tree (though 'whisky' denotes a drink). According to the Cambridge Dictionary, "whisky" denotes:

NOUN

B2 a strong, pale brown alcoholic drink, originally from Scotland and Ireland, made from grain such as barley, maize, or rye

But confusingly, this word (whisky) is used in the following poem:

The Squirrel (Anonymous)

Whisky, frisky,
Hippity hop;
Up he goes
To the tree top!

Whirly, twirly,
Round and round,
Down he scampers
To the ground.

Furly, curly
What a tail!
Tall as a feather
Broad as a sail!

Where's his supper?
In the shell,
Snappity, crackity,
Out it fell.

Please pardon me, if I am mistaking the poem.

  • 11
    Look up whisk. – michael.hor257k Dec 24 '18 at 6:38
  • 32
    Look up poetic license. -- Note also the pattern: Whisk-y, frisk-y; Whirl-y, twirl-y; Furl-y, curl-y. – michael.hor257k Dec 24 '18 at 6:56
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    @Ahmed A dictionary cannot list all constructible variants of a given word (such as conjugations, cases, diminutives, plurals) since that would make a dictionary several times longer without any real benefit. I would assume “whisky” wasn’t in the dictionary you consulted because it’s rarely used and can be constructed from words that are in the dictionary. An unfortunately confusing case, but not all forms of all words can be in the dictionary, so the fact that the adjective interpretation wasn’t in your dictionary doesn’t mean whisky is not an adjective. – 11684 Dec 24 '18 at 12:23
  • 3
    "Whisky" might connote "whiskers", cause squirrels have whiskers. – wjandrea Dec 24 '18 at 17:05
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    If you drink enough whisky you'll see squirrels and other things going up trees. – Robusto Dec 24 '18 at 19:27
42

It’s a rare word (or expression since it collocates as “whisky frisky”), but it is in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED.com) so it’s not a neologism. It’s a poem, so the author likely isn’t worried about using a rare word. In any case the meaning is clear. It is defined as:

Light and lively, flighty.

And it was used as far back as 1782:

Talking in such a whisky frisky manner that nobody can understand him.

Cecilia

I also think I found another example here.

Also here in quotes.

And again here (although it might be a reference to alcohol, I’m not sure).

And yet again here.

  • 4
    Out of sheer curiosity, does the Oxford Dictionary also list "furly"? – Mari-Lou A Dec 24 '18 at 8:50
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    @Mari-LouA it doesn’t list furly. – Laurel Dec 24 '18 at 8:54
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    @Mari-LouA It dates back to at least 1935, although it’s called “Whisky Frisky” there and I can’t see the entire poem. It might be earlier than that though. – Laurel Dec 24 '18 at 9:10
  • 1
    I found a 1932 edition – Mari-Lou A Dec 24 '18 at 10:08
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    Its not that rare. Its still used in cooking a lot, and I hear "whisked away" or "whisked off to .. " a fair bit. – T.E.D. Dec 26 '18 at 22:22
21

Interestingly, the expression “whisky-frisky”, spelled with a hyphen, is an example of a reduplication, albeit very rare. Similar to binomial pairs, reduplication is usually two words but which rhyme together, e.g. hoity-toity, jeepers-creepers, pitter patter, and topsy-turvy. In the English language, whisky-frisky stood for someone drunk on whisk(e)y and probably unsteady on their legs, so quite the opposite of a sprinting squirrel!

The author of the book History, meaning and the sheer joy of words, Vivian Cook, says it is of American origin and is virtually obsolete. She also lists other examples that are mostly forgotten: kitch-witch, holums-jolums, and hitherum-ditherum, note the hyphen that joins the two words together, this is missing from the poem cited by the OP.

However, the poem The Squirrel is filled with reduplicative expressions that small children find particularly appealing due to their quirkiness and rhythmical beats.

  • Hippity hop (nowadays hoppity-hop)
  • Whirly twirly
  • Furly curly
  • Snappity crackity

EL&U has many questions and answers dedicated to this fascinating linguistic phenomenon, I would warmly recommend the OP to delve into its archives.

https://english.stackexchange.com/search?tab=votes&q=reduplication

  • 6
    +1 Apparently I am a holdout for hippity-hop - and a twirly-whirly-er to boot. – tmgr Dec 24 '18 at 11:20
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    Rather than the torpor of the solidly drunk, it might be referring to the quick-fire bonhomie of someone a little tipsy who's lost most of their inhibitions but before they've lost their wakefulness. – Will Crawford Dec 24 '18 at 11:55
  • @WillCrawford ah, yes. You're right, I hadn't thought of that – Mari-Lou A Dec 24 '18 at 12:03
  • I think you've landed a little wide of the mark here in places, in this poem he's simply describing how the squirrel whisks up the tree in a frisky fashion, I'm pretty sure he's not suggesting the squirrel is drunk. – Pelinore Dec 24 '18 at 19:06
  • 2
    @Pelinore my answer is explaining that "whisky-frisky" used to have a specific meaning, which does not fit in with the poem. I never suggested that the squirrel was drunk. Laurel's answer is the one the OP should select. But it is nevertheless true that many of the words are reduplications. – Mari-Lou A Dec 24 '18 at 19:09
14

As other answers have pointed out, this particular example of rhyming repetition dates back at least as far as the 18th century, being used in "The Race," a satirical poem by Cuthbert Shaw (1766), who considered it one of his "favourite words" (see footnote).

The Race

Prove then, oh Goddess! to my labours kind,
And let the sons of Dulness lag behind,
While hoity-toity, whisky-frisky49, I
On ballad-wings spring forth to victory.'

49A favourite word of this author. See Education, a poem.

It was also used in volume three of Cecilia, a book in five volumes by Frances Burney (1782), and in a rhyming chorus in "The Highland Reel," a 1788 farce by John O'Keeffe.

The Highland Reel chorus

Whiskey, frisky,
Prancing, dancing,
Sorrow kick to Nick the De'el,
Care or trouble who can feel,
Lilting up the Highland Reel.

The "Whisky Frisky" poem itself appears in an 1871 children's book, Little-Folk Songs, by Alexina B. White.

Little-Folk Songs title page

Little-Folk Songs date

Whisky Frisky 1871

In that early version, there was a fifth stanza that is missing from most later versions of the poem:

Stir the fire,
    Put on the pot,
Here's his supper
    Hissing hot!

Around the previous turn of the century, the poem was included in a children's reading primer series, The Culture Readers: Embodying the natural method in reading, by Ellen E. Kenyon-Warner, Pd.D. (Doctor of Pedagogy), in a volume aimed at the "second half year".

Culture Readers title page

This "natural method" involves the child reading texts of interest and performing targeted study of words encountered in their reading.

Culture Readers instructions

The "Whisky Frisky" poem is presented with a list of related vocabulary words, some of which appear in the poem and others of which are related through rhyme or similar spelling lessons (e.g. silent A in read, lead, bead).

Whisky Frisky 1902

5

I'd also mention that in poetry, words can be used purely for their sound or effect. As an extreme example, there's a famous English poem "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll (who also wrote the stories of Alice in Wonderland), which begins,

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

-- https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42916/jabberwocky

This is complete nonsense, but it sounds like English and "feels" right to a reader. Just based on the sounds and shapes of the words, they bring to mind possible meanings, and more importantly convey the emotion and feeling of the fantastical world where the Jabberwock lives.

In this poem, "whisky" may be used just for its sound and similarity to the word "whisk", which as Pelinore points out means sudden and quick movement. The "-y" suffix makes it sound even more light and playful, and it rhymes with "frisky".

5

It seems that even when this "whisky frisky" phrase was being used in the 18th century, there was discussion over what it might mean.

In 1787, George Colman "the Elder" published a work titled Prose on Several Occasions; Accompanied With Some Pieces in Verse. In Volume II of this work is a parody called "Letter from Lexiphanes, containing Proposals for a Glossary or Vocabulary of the Vulgar Tongue, intended as a Supplement to a larger Dictionary."

This letter begins:

Tuesday, Dec. 4, 1770.

Sir,

There are in every language, ancient and modern, certain heterogeneous words and anomolous expressions, which render it more difficult to be acquired by students and foreigners than even the most licentious idiomatick phrases, or the most irregular combination of sentences.

After further explanation, he continues:

To remedy this defect in English Literature, I have, with infinite labour, compiled a Vocabulary or Glossary, intended as a Supplement to a larger and more solemn Dictionary. It is easy to foresee that the idle and illiterate will complain that I have increased their labours by endeavoring to diminish them, and that I have explained what is more easy by what is more difficult -- Ignotum per, ignotius.

The letter writer presents a list of definitions for terms such as "higgled-piggledy" and "tit for tat" and "hodge-podge," after which he declares the need for such a dictionary by presenting examples of terms that yet need to be defined:

Philological Disquisitions are but ill adapted to the readers of a sugacious paper. Having, therefore already given a sufficient indication of my purpose to the Philosopher, the Academick, and the Scholar, I shall at present add no further interpretations; but in order to convince the learned of the Necessity and Importance of the work announced to them, I shall somewhat enlarge the catalogue of terms that demand explication; which like base metal among legitimate coin, have, by long usage, become current in our language; and without which the commerce of the world, or even the traffick of letters, can with difficulty be maintained either with profit or delectation. To explain them may be some glory: it would be more substantial fame to contribute to their extirpation.

CATALOGUE.
Wishy-washy,
Mess-medly,
Fiddle-faddle,
...
Tory-rory,
Whisky-frisky,
Snickersnee,
...

He concludes:

He who writes the Dictionary of any Tongue, may be considered as labouring in a coal-mine; but he who collects the Refuse of a Language, claims more than ordinary commiseration, and may be said to sift the cinders.

I am, Sir,
Yours, &c.
LEXIPHANES.

The name "Lexiphanes" is a wordplay on the Greek words for "word" and "show" or "appear."

Colman letter from Lexiphanes

It might be worth noting that in the 18th century, the adjective "whisky" was not a nice way to describe someone.

The 18th century Lancashire satirist John Collier wrote under the pen name "Tim Bobbin." He is best known for A View of the Lancashire Dialect, or, Tummus and Mary (1746), which he followed up with The Lancashire dialect, or, The adventures and misfortunes of a Lancashire clown, which contains the indecipherable (if you're not a Lancastrian) exchange between Tummus (Thomas) and Meary (Mary):

T. Is't think on ot teaw looks o bit whisky, chez whot Seroh o'Rutchot's is.
M. I yeard um sey ot gexing's o knit' lying, un ot proof oth' pudding's ith' eyghting. -- So fareweel, Tummus.

A mid-19th-century revision by Samuel Bamford of the latter work, titled Dialect of South Lancashire: Or, Tim Bobbin's Tummus and Meary ; with His Rhymes and an Enlarged and Amended Glossary of Words and Phrases, includes a glossary that defines "whisky" as "frisky" or "immodest."

frisky immodest

A similar revision by a different mid-19th-century author, John Corry, defines "whisky" as "whorish."

whorish

1

Good answers in the other two but I think you (or at least some) might benefit from an answer in simpler terms, the "whisky" in the poem is derived from the word whisk.

take or move (someone or something) somewhere suddenly and quickly.

The author has simply added a few letters to it so that it rhymes with frisky.

He's a poet, they're allowed to do things like that :)

  • 1
    We prefer that you track down definitions to the dictionary they came from, and link to that (rather than to Google). – Scott Dec 24 '18 at 18:42
  • @Scott : The dictionary it came from is my head & it's not been digitized yet so we'll have to make do. – Pelinore Dec 24 '18 at 18:44
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    If the dictionary is in your head, why are you linking to Google at all?  Google is your friend. – Scott Dec 24 '18 at 19:06
  • @Scott : ^ not knowing who might be reading (their age or ability in English), for the soundbite. – Pelinore Dec 24 '18 at 19:15
1

For totaly clarity but also not to contradict at all the other great and well researched answers, no, you cannot use 'whisky' to describe a squirrel going up a tree.

For example, in:

The whisky squirrel retrieved a number of acorns before coming back down.

or

The squirrel was very whisky.

to a modern reader (and most likely from past centuries, would wonder what why would you talk about a drunk rodent like that. A whisky-soaked squirrel? A squirrel that looks like a whisk?

Used by itself, 'whisky' is either a misspelled liquor used strangely, or a weird way to say it looks like a whisk. Either way, it'd be a cumbersome unnatural (almost ungrammatical) way to say it.

Yes, it has all those past usages, but no, you don't really want to use 'whisky' the way you suppose in your title.

  • Not misspelled. Scotch whisky prefers that spelling. – Robusto Dec 27 '18 at 12:20

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