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Arts & Life

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?


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