Q From Lenore Lindsay, Australia: I remember hearing part of a radio discussion on the ABC local station (Queensland, Australia) some years ago on local expressions, and among those mentioned was one similar to one I recognised from my childhood, a wing-wong for a goose’s bridle. Do you have any comments on this expression?
A I didn’t, so I passed the question to World Wide Words subscribers, who were as knowledgeable as ever. Many not only knew the answer but were able to supply examples of the way it is used.
The original form, it is now clear, was whim-wham for a goose’s bridle, a version that is still remembered by some older people in Britain. It turns out to be a well-known Australian expression (though not used as much as it once was), a traditional way of deflecting a question from an inquisitive child. “What are you doing, daddy?” “I’m making a whim-wham for a goose’s bridle.” In other words, “go away”, “stop bothering me”.
Whim-wham is an old English term for a trivial or frivolous thing, such as an ornament or trinket. It is now not much known, though not obsolete. Its origin is mysterious, though it’s clearly a reduplicated word, like flim-flam, and may derive from whimsy in the same way that flim-flam is related to flimsy.
Don Esslemont wrote, as have others, to point out that it has also been used for a small object whose true name is not known, in much the same way as gizmo or thingummy. He wrote: “I heard it during my service in the Royal Navy in the 1950s. I first saw it in print in a catalogue produced by Thomas Foulkes, a London yacht chandler, in the early 1960s, applied to a wire attached to a snap-hook”.
As whim-wham is only known in Australia as part of this set phrase, folk etymology has often turned it into wigwam, and also to other forms, such as your wing-wong, and also as wig-wog. And — as you commented in another message — bridle has sometimes been changed to bridal, which adds another layer of confusion to an already mysterious saying.
It is clear that there has been a long history of nonsense phrases intended to silence intrusive enquiries about what one was doing, such as telling someone that your job was “weaving leather aprons”. Other forms of our expression that have been recorded in Britain include a whim-wham for ducks to perch on, a whim-wham for a treacle mill, and a whim-wham to wind the sun up.
Many subscribers have written in with variations on the expression, and other put-downs of similar kind that they remember from childhood. Jon Paddick recalled, “My grandmother, a Berkshire countrywoman born in the 1880's, was very fond of using the variation, ‘a swinkle-swankle for a goose’s nightcap’.’ Loren Myer mentioned that her parents, “both born in the early 20th century in central Illinois”, fended off unwelcome enquiries by saying they were “making layovers to catch meddlers”. Bob Lee wrote: “I recall that at my father’s knee I was told by him that he was making ‘a silver new nothing to put on your shoe’ ”. Virginia Scofield contributed: “When my Welsh grandfather would get perturbed at my incessant questions, he would say he was making ‘airlos to catch medlos’ ”. Leonard G. Lee wrote: “When I was growing up, my father used the expression ‘A whipple for a dooses poke’ in the same way”. James Sloan from Texas had a memory of his mother: “I would ask what something was for and she would say ‘a cat for to make a pair of kitty britches’ ”. Katrina Beard remembers her grandmother using an extended version of the canonical form: “A wigwam for a goose’s bridle, and a crutch for a lame duck”. Norm Brust noted that “As a boy, when I asked my father what he was so busy with that he couldn’t give me his time, his stock reply was ‘I’m pressing my shoe laces’ ”. From Devon, Lesley Pinkett mentioned that “My husband and father in law both used to talk about a ‘whim-whom for grinding smoke’ to describe anything that they were doing and didn’t want to expand on further”.