Take That, You Whippersnapper!

When I first began working at the University of California in Berkeley, more than a decade ago, I was middle-aged, as were most of the other staffers. The students looked very young. The older I got, the younger they looked. And in some cases, they acted young.

That first year, we had a student assistant in our office. She was indeed very young, a seventeen-year-old freshman who wouldn’t even attain eighteen until later that fall.

One day, a coworker and I jokingly called this young student assistant a whippersnapper. She looked at us as though we were speaking Sanskrit and asked what it meant.


I thought I knew what the word meant but I wasn’t sure. I only knew that a whip was most likely involved. I associated it with being young and callow, and indeed, the Oxford Dictionary defines whippersnapper  as “a young and inexperienced person considered to be presumptuous or overconfident.”

Where did that word come from? For some reason, I associated it with Booth Tarkington and his novel Seventeen, which was first published in 1916, a mere 98 years ago. I can’t recall whether Tarkington used the word whippersnapper in Seventeen. But I remember the protagonist of this humorous tale of a seventeen-year-old boy as something of a whippersnapper.

I read the book back when I was that age, or thereabouts. Tarkington’s World War I-era story was enjoyable, but quite removed from my late 1960s world. And my era is just as remote to a UC Berkeley student in the twenty-first century.

Where in the world did the word “whippersnapper” originate? Europe, seventeenth century, and then it migrated to America in the late eighteenth century.

Ah, the Internet, also remote from my teen years. I searched and found. It appears the word whippersnapper was used to refer to idle young men who stood around on street corners in London, Paris and other large cities, cracking and snapping short whips. These young men were called whipper-snappers and at some point that hyphen went away.

All sorts of interesting words and phrases crowd into my mind, their origins worth investigating.

A few days ago I told a friend that my mother was a change baby. It’s a commonly used term, in my family anyway, for a child born to a older mother, one who will soon experience the change, or menopause.

My friend, who is older and from a different part of the United States, had never heard the term. This made me wonder if it was a regionalism.

I did an Internet search and couldn’t find anything under “change baby” except YouTube videos offering to show me how to change a diaper.

But the term “change of life baby” netted a definition: a baby conceived during the perimenopause, the period of months or years leading up to menopause.


Words and phrases, such fun! I know what the term “prime the pump” means. Do you, you whippersnapper?


One Response

  1. I’m no whippersnapper, and I sure remember priming a pump. Until I was in my teens, the house in which my mother grew up still had only a pump in the kitchen sink in the way of indoor plumbing. (Mom’s sister still lived there with her family–she’d be 105 this year.) To get that pump to work, you had to pour some water down into it, and then pump hard a couple of times before regular strokes brought up lots of water.

    So priming the pump nowadays means feeding a little something in (maybe information?) to get more than you had before. A good technique for a smart sleuth.

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