linguistics and lexicography Love English

The wacky world of ‘wack’ and ‘whack’

© ImageSourceImagine you’re involved in a project outdoors, busy doing your whack of the work, and suddenly you get a whack of a branch, or you whack your leg off a gate. That would be totally wack, right? Or is it whack? If the semantic tangle of these words leaves you feeling a little out of whack, just whack the kettle on, and read on.

Whack meaning ‘hit’, as a noun and verb, is centuries old but remains informal compared to such synonyms as strike, blow, and knock. It may be onomatopoeic in origin, which is why it’s used as a sound effect in comic books and the old Batman TV show. It also has the related meaning ‘kill’, for example in criminal slang.



Wack emerged more recently as a back-formation from wacky. Initially it was a noun used to refer to a crazy or eccentric person – He’s a real wack – with wacko and whacko emerging as slangy offshoots. This was followed by adjectival wack meaning bad, unfashionable, stupid or of low quality, as in the anti-drugs slogan Crack is wack. In the 1990s it took on the opposite sense ‘very good’. Even old slang can be hard to keep up with.

Given the similarity of wack and whack, it’s no surprise that they’re sometimes used interchangeably, especially in slang and other informal contexts. Hence the suggestion from a reader of my blog that I explore ‘the whack/wack conundrum’, which I’m finally getting around to. Whack for wack also appears in edited prose, as in the Atlantic article ‘My President is Whack’. But the usual spelling in this context is wack, as Gawker notes.

One reason the two spellings are so mixed is the wine–whine merger. As its name suggests, this is where people pronounce wine and whine – or wack and whack – the same way. The merger is a feature of many of the world’s major dialects of English, including most British ones, though in my own (west of Ireland) accent I pronounce them differently.

British English has a couple of informal senses of whack that are worth knowing: a verb meaning ‘put something somewhere quickly or carelessly’ (like the kettle in paragraph 1), and a noun meaning ‘an amount of something’. Both are used by chef Jamie Oliver, who says things like ‘Whack it in the oven’, and ‘Turn the grill on to full whack.’

The word has still more uses, especially in slang, but it would take several articles to do the full whack, and that would be too w(h)acky even for me.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

5 Comments

  • Wacky, however, is < whack ‘fool’, presumably one who’s been whacked on the head. So the spelling indicates an etymological distinction that doesn’t actually exist. Whelk has a similar story: etymologically it should be welk.

  • Ian: There is now, thanks to you.

    John: It’s pretty wack that whack‘s cartoonish connotations belie its probable origins in physical violence. I didn’t know that about whelk – another interesting case.

  • John, I’m with you! “Wacky” is most likely derived from “whack” – e.g. someone who’s wacky has been whacked too many times in the head. So “wack” is therefore two steps removed from the original “whack” – what’s so wrong about using the (perhaps etymologically more correct/similar to the original word) “whack”?

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