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The meaning and origin of the expression: Whipper snapper

Whipper snapper

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Whipper snapper'?

A whipper-snapper is a diminutive or insignificant person, especially a sprightly or impertinent youngster.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Whipper snapper'?

'Whipper snapper' is now a rather archaic term and, although you might hear it in black and white British films, those who are young and streetwise enough to actually be whipper snappers aren't likely to use it.

'Whipper snappers' were known by various names, all of them derived from the habit of young layabouts of hanging around snapping whips to pass the time. Originally these ne'er-do-wells were known simply, and without any great linguistic imagination, as 'whip snappers'.

Whipper snapperThis term merged with an existing 17th century term for street rogues - 'snipper snappers', to become 'whipper snapper'. Christopher Marlowe mentions 'snipper snapper' in the 1604 edition of The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus, when referring to a 'hey-pass', which is what street jugglers were known as in Marlowe's day.

But I'll seeke out my Doctor... O yonder is his snipper snapper... You, hey-pass, where's your master?

The meaning of 'whipper snapper' has altered over the years, originally referring to a young man with no apparent get up and go, to later be used to mean a youngster with an excess of both ambition and impudence and a scant regard for the law.

The earliest known use of whipper-snapper in print is in the English author Richard Head's flamboyantly named narrative on the life of the highwayman Francis Jackson - Jackson's Recantation, or, The life & death of the notorius high-way-man, now hanging in chains at Hampstead, 1674:

Have a care of Marlbrough Downs, there are a parcel of whipper Snappers have been very busie there of late.

Whipper snapperJackson was hanged in 1674, on Hampstead Heath, in an area now evocatively known as Gibbet Hill.

Head's use of 'whipper-snappers' suggests he meant highwaymen, but it was really a more general term meaning street thieves. A few years later the anonymous B. E., in A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, 1699, defined the term:

Whipper-snapper, a very small but sprightly Boy.

See also the meaning and origin of 'whipping boy'.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

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