whippletree

Is this the source of Charmin? Charming idea, but no, that’s a bit of a squeeze, whether Mr. Whipple wants it to be or not. Nor has it to do with cream or any other desserts, though the word has, for me, a certain delectable fluffiness to it, the whip notwithstanding. It is also not a low-price Hilton (that’s Doubletree). You will find no fipple and sip no tipple… but if you are chased to the steeple, well, then, you are in harness, for so is this word.

This is a word for an object that is hard to describe, but if you should see one, you’d probably say, “Oh, that!” I’ll make it easy: there’s a picture of a set of whippletrees at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Triple_whippletree_set.jpg (since it is a set of three, is it a whipplethree? or a triple whipple?). These are devices for evening a pulling load: the ropes attached on each side – say, of a horse – pull on the ends of a crossbar, and the centre of the crossbar has a rope that in turn pulls the load. Very simple. Similar arrangements are used in other places, such as windshield wipers (the set of V-shaped things like a syntax tree that distribute the pressure).

OK, we see the tree, but wherefore the whipple? From whip, in case you forgot how horses have long been motivated. But another word for the device is swingletree, which is actually borrowed from a device for dressing flax (a swingle is a flail-like device for beating flax or hemp; I wonder whether the swingle sings as it is swung, for there is a fun a capella group called the Swingle Singers, named after their conductor, Ward Swingle). The original name for the harness piece is singletree; the crosspiece to which one attaches a pair of singletrees is in turn called a doubletree. But – to escape the connection of cheap hotels with single swingers? no; that would be anachronistic – back when people knew what swingles and whipples were, the single-swingle-whipple triple topple was capably popular.

But there is still double deviltry in this whippletree, with its double p and single-double triple e. It also pulls a double pucker: you start with the moue of the bouche on the [w], pulling back for the [p] and the syllabic [l], but look out for the second kiss: in English, we round our lips when saying [r]. It is as though the mouth is being pulled at two points. Or perhaps just squeezed twice. (How charming.)

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