My understanding of the whipsaw term is that can, according to Wiktionary, be used rhetorically as in these examples:

verb (transitive) To defeat someone in two different ways at once.

2014 November 1, Peter Baker & Michael D. Shear, “Braced for a shift in Congress, Obama is setting a new agenda [print version: Obama plots a route for compromise after election, International New York Times, 3 November 2014, p. 1]”, in The New York Times‎1:

Whipsawed by events and facing another midterm electoral defeat, President Obama has directed his team to forge a policy agenda to regain momentum for his final two years in office even as some advisers urge that he rethink the way he governs.

So that, informally, an argument might be classified as a "whipsaw" using the above definition.

Is this correct understanding?

As events can cause whipsaw action might not rhetoric similarly cause a whipsaw as defined above?

(None of the linked articles is exactly on-point, those are just along the lines of the unusual usage.)

Here's an explicit usage of the term "whipsaw" in the media:

When MSNBC host Chris Hayes asked Mr Fauci if he understood why people "might feel a little whipsawed",

"Sure, yeah, it’s thoroughly understandable," he replied. "But there really is a pretty clear explanation of it."

which would generally be where it's most employed.

  • The "To defeat someone in two different ways at once." seems to be misleading. The OED, merely gives "thoroughly defeating" - the means and the number of adversaries is irrelevant. – Greybeard Sep 14 '20 at 13:56
  • My take is that it's not terribly dissimilar to a false dichotomy, in the context of rhetoric. – Nicholas Saunders Sep 14 '20 at 14:01
  • @Greybeard Most other reputable dictionaries (including Lexico) mention the two-pronged attack. CED has a caveat:'to defeat or affect someone badly, especially in two ways at the same time:' – Edwin Ashworth Sep 14 '20 at 14:09
  • I've always assumed that the metaphor derived from the back-and-forth motion, with "sawyers" on both ends. – Hot Licks Oct 14 '20 at 23:31

Your reference gives a premodifier usage it wrongly terms adjectival, but which is certainly relevant.

Here are two examples of the premodifier usage given at the Merriam-Webster entry for 'whipsaw' (though it does not give the recent metaphorical sense for the noun):

  1. The whipsaw nature of the state’s regulations ... [Scott Wilson, Washington Post, "California reverses reopening as coronavirus cases spike," 30 June 2020]
  2. The whipsaw action came just one day after a historic rout that saw the blue-chip index drop by 2,013 points, the most ever. NBC News, "Stock markets rally, with Dow surging 1,000 points at closing bell," 10 Mar. 2020]

The metaphorical premodifier usage is now common currency.

And further recent examples collected by M-W:

  1. One described the effect as a whipsaw, saying the company and union would try to convince workers to accept a bad deal or see jobs shipped away. [Eric D. Lawrence, Detroit Free Press... 16 Nov. 2019]
  2. The president’s rhetorical whipsaw came against the backdrop of tense but cordial meetings in Biarritz, France. [Michael D. Shear, New York Times ... 25 Aug. 2019]
  3. The whipsaw of weather and market forces make for long seasons of uncertainty.[Autumn Schoolman, Indianapolis Star, ... 4 Feb. 2020]

show that the metaphorical pure noun usage is also gaining currency. Also, the 'president' example shows that there is a broadening from the 'dilemma' problem sense or 'involving successive ups and downs' problem sense to the 'speech highlighting the dilemma' or 'speech involving a series of U-turns') senses, one of which you ask about. However, 'rhetorical whipsaw' is probably less jarring than a plain 'whipsaw' would be here.

I'd be careful about using the bare noun as a metaphor for a whipsaw/dilemma-related speech or argument. Especially when there is more than one unbroadened metaphorical usage of 'whipsaw'.

The nounal usages correspond exactly to the verbal counterparts:

[A] whipsaw: to beset or victimize in two opposite ways at once, by a two-phase operation, or by the collusive action of two opponents

  • wage earners were whipsawed by inflation and high taxes


[B] whipsaw: ... To [move or] cause to move or alternate rapidly in contrasting directions: The bond market ... continues to be whipsawed by fears of rekindled inflation (Steven E. Levingston).


So is "He delivered a whipsaw [lecture]" a lecture about a two-pronged assault we need to counter, or one full of U-turns? I'm not even sure which senses are intended in most of examples 1-5 above.

  • yes, your question about the lecture gets it exactly right. My understanding of the usage would be that if the lecturer himself whipsaws then his lecture is full of u-turns -- which would be an odd lecture. But his lecture could whipsaw the audience in some fashion, such as to catch them in a whipsaw between x and y. But I have no real source, that's just my impression. Saying it like that, I cannot differentiate "whipsaw" here from "being caught between a rock and hard place", just said differently. – Nicholas Saunders Sep 14 '20 at 15:01
  • I suppose 'rhetoric' is non-count and ill-defined wrt time involved, unlike 'lecture'. But isn't there a whipsaw harangue in 1984? 'At any moment, however, an alliance could shift and the two states that had previously been at war with each other may suddenly ally against the other... the past immediately had to be re-written—to provide continuity....Winston describes how, when the announcer spoke, "nothing altered in his voice or manner or in the content of what he was saying, but suddenly the names were different' Wikipedia – Edwin Ashworth Sep 14 '20 at 15:29

It can be used figuratively as a noun, but it tends to have a slightly more specific sense.

To "whipsaw" is as you say a verb meaning "figurative (U.S. slang) to have or get the advantage of thoroughly, to overcome completely, ‘cut up’." (OED)

When used as a noun it has a slightly more specific meaning "figurative. Something that is disadvantageous in two ways. Originally and chiefly U.S." (OED again)

A whip-saw or whipsaw is a long saw operated by two people, one at each end. It's easy to see how this gives rise to the sense of to "cut up" metaphorically, i.e. to defeat or demolish in an argument or in negotiations. But also having one person at each end gives a more specifical metaphorical sense, something like being destroyed by two people working together from opposite sides. The OED's examples for the noun are all used in this specific sense ("The wage push..and the rising interest rates..have together caught the American economy in a cruel and sharp whipsaw" 1967; "the whipsaw effect of recession and rising costs" 1977; "There was fifteen hundred on the turn—seven hundred and fifty on each side of it—and the run was tray, ace; a whipsaw." 1873).

It's possible for an argument to attack from two sides, e.g. by presenting two alternatives, neither desirable, but most arguments would not have this specific structure.

"whip-saw, n.". OED Online. September 2020. Oxford University Press. https://www-oed-com.nls.idm.oclc.org/view/Entry/228443 (accessed September 14, 2020).


  • Perhaps the usage in relation to union's is pertinent, in that they're presenting almost a false choice to the employer. – Nicholas Saunders Sep 14 '20 at 15:26

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