“Go wobbly”

In a commencement address last month, former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth even on what may seem the most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America.”

That “go wobbly” caught the ear of friend-of-NOOBS Stuart Semmel, as an echo of a famous Margaret Thatcher quote. She described in her memoirs a conversation with Pres. George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf War: “We must use our powers to stop Iraqi shipping,” she recalled telling him. “This was no time to go wobbly.”

The relevant OED definition is “Wavering, uncertain, or insecure; unreliable, unstable.” And I hasten to say that the word “wobbly” is nothing new in the U.S., especially in the literal sense of wavering back and forth. In addition, “Wobbly” is a slang term for a member of the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.) labor union. (A 1923 article by a member of the union gave an account of how the term originated: “In Vancouver, in 1911, we had a number of Chinese members and one restaurant keeper would trust any member for meals. He could not pronounce the letter w, but called it wobble, and would ask: ‘You I. Wobble Wobble?’ [that is, I. W. W.] and when the card was shown, credit was unlimited. Thereafter the laughing term among us was I. Wobbly Wobbly.”)

But “go wobbly” definitely has a Thatcherian and very British feel. Searching for the phrase in the New York Times, I found it in a January 2018 article about a conservative group’s hoped-for turn of events after a government shutdown a few years back:

“The public would express outrage that the president was willing to hold America’s full faith and credit hostage over the much-disliked Obamacare. Democrats would go wobbly.”

And then, not long after hearing from Stuart, I read in The New Yorker an article about the hacked e-mails of Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal. One of them, from producer Scott Rudin, remarked, “So you’re feeling wobbly in the job right now.”

It’s clear: “wobbly” has arrived.




10 responses to ““Go wobbly”

  1. And you’ve also got ‘throw a wobbly’ for ‘throw a tantrum.’

    • As yet unheard in the USA I would say.

      • Jason LoCascio

        Do you have “throw your toys out of the pram” ? Similar meaning … not quite as severe as “go postal” …

      • We don’t even have prams.

      • Paul Dormer

        Curiously, last night I was reading the story The Brave Little Toaster by Thomas M Disch and at one point, he mentions “a large vinyl perambulator, which is another word for pram, which is also know, in the appliances’ part of the world, as a baby buggy.” Quite why an American author writing for an American magazine, in a story quite clearly set in America, used the word pram, I cant tell.

    • Jowls Paisley

      “chuck a wobbly”

  2. Every Whovian in the USA has heard wibbly wobbly timey wimey

  3. Michael McLennan

    “My spelling is wobbly. It’s good spelling but it wobbles, and the letters get in the wrong places.” -Winnie the Pooh

  4. ‘Throwing/chucking a wobbly or wobbler’ (tantrum) and ‘he was all wobblybob’ (a bit wonky, odd behaviour, erratic) are also British phrases.

  5. Australians also throw or chuck a wobbly. Alternatively, they spit the dummy, or what Americans would call the pacifier. An epic tantrum would be called a dummy spit.

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