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TWTS: The meaning of "wishy-washy" can be kind of, well, wishy-washy

Today it's politicians who sometimes get criticized for being wishy-washy, rather than the soup getting criticized as wishy-washy.

Let's back up a bit.

A listener named Sheryl Knox posed an interesting grammar question recently, but what really caught our eye was this line at the end the email: "Why are people so wishy-washy?"

While we can't answer that particular question, we can certainly take a closer look at "wishy-washy."

When "wishy-washy" first came into use in the late 1700s, it was used to describe drinks or soup as being weak, watery or sloppy.  From there, "wishy-washy" becomes a figurative description for people who are weak or sickly. Eventually, that meaning expanded to include someone who is weak in character.

Today, many of us use "wishy-washy" to describe someone who is indecisive or will not take a firm stand on something. However, the American Heritage Dictionary also includes "lacking in purpose; weak or ineffective," as in "a wishy-washy response to the criticism."

"If someone said, 'She gave me a wishy-washy response,' I maybe could interpret [her response] as weak, but I might interpret it as she couldn't make a decision," says English professor Anne Curzan. "So I do think, and I hadn't realized this, that there may be some ambiguity going on with 'wishy-washy.'"

Interesting. How do you use this phrase?


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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