Thursday, May 29, 2008

Give It A Whirl

Fred from Boyne Falls, Michigan, asked about the idiom, “to give it a whirl.” It’s an American colloquialism and dates back to the late 1800s. It means an attempt, especially an initial or tentative attempt. It has cousins in “give it a shot” and “give it the old college try.”

Fred speculated that it might come from dancing, where a whirling motion is often a prominent feature. Think Dancing with the Stars or any Strauss waltz. “Give it a whirl” also conjures up images of a whirling dervish.

As it turns out, it probably has a less festive source. It is likely that it refers to a flywheel. A flywheel is a wheel with a heavy rim attached to a rotating shaft. It may have a variety of purposes: to start a piston engine, to minimize wobble in a machine once it has started, or to collect kinetic power from the rotary motion. In early tractors, for instance, you started the engine by giving a good twist (whirl) to the flywheel.

So to give something a whirl originally was to try to start it up. The OED tells us that in Australia and New Zealand, the same idea was expressed by “give it a burl” or “give it a birl.” The verb to birl always included the idea of rotary motion, whether it spoke of a rifle bullet, a grist mill, or a flipped coin.

SIDEBAR: Whirling Dervish

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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