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This is the definition of Fickle by Merriam Webster:

marked by lack of steadfastness, constancy, or stability : given to erratic changeableness

This is the definition of Whimsical by Merriam Webster:

1a: resulting from or characterized by whim or caprice especially : lightly fanciful whimsical decorations b: subject to erratic behavior or unpredictable change 2: full of, actuated by, or exhibiting whims

I just don't see whether there's any difference between these two adjectives, but for whimsical to be something more lighthearted, perhaps even funny. Neither of them appears as the other's synonym when I look for them in Merriam Webster's thesaurus.

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    "But for whimsical to be something more lighthearted, perhaps even funny." That seems like a pretty significant difference to me. Aug 8, 2020 at 9:49
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    Fickle is always uncomplimentary. Definition 1b for whimsical is similar, but that word can also be used in other, more complimentary senses, to do with fanciful, surprising ideas in literature or the arts. Aug 8, 2020 at 12:26
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    Someone who is fickle is unreliable. Aug 8, 2020 at 13:34
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    You could not consider those two words synonyms. Even though parts of their definitions may overlap, they would never be used in the same contexts.
    – Robusto
    Aug 8, 2020 at 16:27
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    "I just don't see whether there's any difference between these two adjectives," That is because you have given no context. It is impossible to overstate the importance of context in English. If you provide a few examples, the difference will become apparent.
    – Greybeard
    Aug 10, 2020 at 19:48

3 Answers 3

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The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) advises that ‘Fickle’ comes from an Old English for ‘to deceive’, ‘deceitful’ and ‘Whimsical’ is related to ‘whim’, ‘whimsy’, whose origin is unclear, even though it is possible that 'whim' and 'whimsy' are connected to an Old Norse that means ‘to wonder with the eyes as with the fugitive look of a frightened or silly person’; both ‘whim’ and ‘whimsy’ refer to playfulness, caprice, something fanciful or fantastic.

Something playful and fanciful (whimsical) may not necessarily be unreliable and deceitful (fickle). Though it is possible to be both playful and unreliable in character. One could say that the two words refer to very different characteristics that do not necessarily co-exist but are not necessarily mutually exclusive either.

Perhaps, looking at a few more examples, in addition to those already discussed, might help to get a deeper sense of the difference.

The OED on ‘fickle’:

It means changeable, changelful, inconstant, uncertain, unreliable in reference to persons, their attributes, feelings and in reference to things, natural agents, etc.

1667 J. Milton Paradise Lost ii. 233 When everlasting Fate shall yield To fickle Chance.

1815 W. Scott Lord of Isles vi. vi. 229 Versed in the fickle heart of man.

1817 W. Scott Rob Roy I. i. 9 He who embarks on that fickle sea, requires to possess the skill of the pilot.

1861 J. G. Holland Lessons in Life i. 12 The weather being very fickle.

However, there is also an obsolete meaning of false, deceitful, treacherous, now possibly in regional use, in reference to places.

The OED on ‘whimsical’:

  1. In reference to persons, their actions, thoughts: Full of, subject to, or characterized by a whim or whims; actuated by or depending upon whim or caprice.

  2. Characterized by deviation from the ordinary as if determined by mere caprice; fantastic, fanciful; freakish, odd, comical.

1703 Earl of Orrery As you find It iii. i. 35 A Man with a fantastical, whimsical Stomach may starve in the midst of Plenty, not for want of Food, but such as he likes.

1710 J. Swift Lett. (1767) III. 57 Is it not whimsical that the dean has never once written to me?

1839 C. Dickens Nicholas Nickleby xxiv. 234 Hesitating between the respect he ought to assume, and his love of the whimsical.

1852 H. B. Stowe Uncle Tom's Cabin I. ix. 123 Our senator..looked after his little wife with a whimsical mixture of amusement and vexation.

Note:

It is important to keep in mind that dictionary entries do not “dictate” usage. The OED aims to present a comprehensive record of word usage throughout history. It ‘informs’ how a word has been used but does not ‘dictate’ how it must be used; of course, the record may be, and is likely to be, incomplete and there will always be instances of usage that have remained undocumented. Also, modern usage may be evolving at a fast pace and a dictionary may fall behind with its coverage.

Merriam-Webster offers, for each word, a section ‘Recent examples from the Web’, though these examples are selected automatically and have not been reviewed by their editors. Of course, it is always advisable to consult more than one dictionary.

P. S.

Some additional examples from literary works:

  1. Mathilda and the Fields of Fancy, Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft 1819

One on whose forehead the impress of grief was strongly marked, and whose words and motions betrayed that her thoughts did not follow them but were intent on far other ideas; bitter and overwhelming miseries. I was dressed also in a whimsical nunlike habit which denoted that I did not retire to solitude from necessity, but that I might indulge in a luxury of grief, and fanciful seclusion.

  1. The Last Man, Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft 1826

To me this proceeding appeared (if so light a term may be permitted) extremely whimsical. Now that the race of man had lost in fact all distinction of rank, this pride was doubly fatuitous; now that we felt a kindred, fraternal nature with all who bore the stamp of humanity, this angry reminiscence of times for ever gone, was worse than foolish.

  1. Tales and Stories, Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft ~1820-1840

Sir Richard, by one of those inconceivable changes which sometimes occur in the history of human nature, set his heart on saving a fortune for his beloved boy. He thought that I might be fickle; he feared his own death and the loss of power to benefit him. He gave up his establishment in town—he let Beech Grove—he saved every farthing that he could, and was enabled to settle twenty thousand pounds on Clinton on the day of our marriage.

  1. Early Poems, Byron, George Gordon 1809

I will not advance, [v] By the rules of romance, To humour a whimsical fair; Though a smile may delight, Yet a frown will affright, [vi] Or drive me to dreadful despair.

  1. Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Byron, George Gordon 1818

Woe unto us, not her; for she sleeps well: The fickle reek of popular breath, the tongue Of hollow counsel, the false oracle, Which from the birth of monarchy hath rung Its knell in princely ears, till the o'erstrung Nations have armed in madness, the strange fate Which tumbles mightiest sovereigns, and hath flung Against their blind omnipotence a weight...

  1. Don Juan, Byron, George Gordon 1824

'But droop not: Fortune at your time of life, Although a female moderately fickle, Will hardly leave you (as she 's not your wife) For any length of days in such a pickle.

  1. The Piccolomini, a Translation from Schiller, Coleridge, Samuel Taylor 1800

From lowest stable-duty I climbed up, Such was the fate of war, to this high rank, The plaything of a whimsical good fortune. And Wallenstein too is a child of luck, I love a fortune that is like my own.

  1. The Fall of Robespierre, Coleridge, Samuel Taylor 1794

Couthon. 'Twere folly sure to work great deeds by halves! Much I suspect the darksome fickle heart Of cold Barrere! Robespierre. I see the villain in him!

  1. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe, Daniel 1719

and that was, to try if I could not make some of my barley into malt, and then try to brew myself some beer: this was really a whimsical thought, and I reproved myself often for the simplicity of it;

  1. Prince Otto, Stevenson, Robert Louis 1885

‘Stay, stay,’ said the Baron; ‘not so fast. I wish, upon my soul, that I could trust you; but you are, out and in, so whimsical a devil that I dare not. Hang it, Anna, no; it’s not possible!’

  1. Memories and Portraits, Stevenson, Robert Louis 1887

He had excellent taste, though whimsical and partial; collected old furniture and delighted specially in sunflowers long before the days of Mr. Oscar Wilde;

  1. More New Arabian Nights, co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson, Stevenson, Robert Louis 1882

"And when you speak of ease," pursued Zero, "in this age of scientific studies, you fill me with surprise. Are you not aware that chemicals are proverbially fickle as woman, and clockwork as capricious as the very devil? Do you see upon my brow these furrows of anxiety?

  1. The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens, Charles 1841

‘Oh capital, capital!’ shouted Brass, from the mere force of habit. ‘Excellent! How very good he is! He’s a most remarkable man--so extremely whimsical! Such an amazing power of taking people by surprise!’

  1. Bleak House, Dickens, Charles 1853

He had taken two or three undecided turns up and down while uttering these broken sentences, retaining the poker in one hand and rubbing his hair with the other, with a good-natured vexation at once so whimsical and so lovable that I am sure we were more delighted with him than we could possibly have expressed in any words.

  1. Barnaby Rudge, Dickens, Charles 1841

As a general principle and abstract proposition, Miggs held the male sex to be utterly contemptible and unworthy of notice; to be fickle, false, base, sottish, inclined to perjury, and wholly undeserving.

  1. Barnaby Rudge, Dickens, Charles 1841

It was on one of those mornings, common in early spring, when the year, fickle and changeable in its youth like all other created things, is undecided whether to step backward into winter or forward into summer, and in its uncertainty inclines now to the one and now to the other

The Full List of Usage Instances of 'fickle' and 'whimsical' in the Novels of Charles Dickens:

https://quotations.ch/quotations/#authors=Dickens&words=fickle https://quotations.ch/quotations/#authors=Dickens&words=whimsical

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  • A thorough answer, though I feel you should stress that the OE source of 'fickle' need not dictate (or even inform, though it probably does) the present sense/s with which the word is now used. Aug 12, 2020 at 10:45
  • Thank you, Edwin. I wanted to clarify - are you pointing out that one should not, in general, interpret dictionary recommendations as “dictating” the current usage? This is, indeed, a very fair point. I omitted to address this in the answer for I felt that this is something of which readers might be aware. Though, perhaps, it makes sense to stress this. I made an addition. However, if I misunderstood you in some way, please let know.
    – Anya
    Aug 13, 2020 at 11:09
  • The OED (as well as, I believe, M-W) is a historical dictionary: it lists usages (even obsolete ones) in order of known appearance in print, and never gets rid of any data. Other dictionaries (Collins, AHD, Macmillan ...) (there may be other exceptions) list senses in order of frequency of usage as estimated in their most recent samplings. These orderings may well change over time, and very seldom used usages dropped altogether. // I'm mentioning the Etymological Fallacy (qv). Aug 13, 2020 at 14:43
  • Thank you. This is, indeed, so. Dictionaries declare their methodologies explicitly, and, of course, it is well known that usage changes, at times, dramatically, (or entirely new usage emerges) over time.
    – Anya
    Aug 14, 2020 at 13:33
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The primary difference is that fickle relates to change whereas whimsical relates to style.

The following definitions from Lexico bring out this distinction well.

fickle adjective Changing frequently, especially as regards one's loyalties or affections. ‘celebs trying to appeal to an increasingly fickle public’ - lexico

whimsical adjective 1 Playfully quaint or fanciful, especially in an appealing and amusing way. ‘a whimsical sense of humour’ - lexico

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    Also, whimsy can be a one-time event, while fickleness needs a pattern to show itself. Aug 10, 2020 at 19:49
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There are three major differences.

The first is that a whimsical person is regarded in a more lighthearted manner, as you say.

The second one is that a whimsical person changes based on his own whims, where a fickle person is often, and generally, bending to outside influences or otherwise showing weakness of character. Someone who changes his mind based on hearing something praised or ridiculed, or dropped an activity as soon as he discovered it would be difficult, would be fickle, not whimsical.

This results in the third: fickleness is never a positive trait.

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    I'd say a major difference is that 'fickle' is very rarely applied to say a usage or (concrete) fabrication. 'The decor is eclectic and whimsical, from ornate chandeliers to a digital photo booth.' — Matt Kettmann, SFChronicle.com. So I'd count your first sentence as incorrect. However, if you adjust and add supporting references for your other very valid votes, I see no need to downvote. Aug 12, 2020 at 10:41

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