Cool [ʍɪp]

Voiceless /hw/ (phonetically [ʍ]) in a surprising place (the name of the artificial whipped cream Cool Whip), a place where even W-WH contrasters like me never have it. Made into a standing joke on The Family Guy. Which will cause me to tell you more about voiceless /hw/ in English than you might have wanted to know.

Overview. It all started back in my 5/1 posting “The sequel to my allergic ass”, in a section about the spelling WHALING for WAILING from a writer who was pretty clearly a voicer rather than a contraster in his speech (and was also not in very firm control of standard spellings).

The take-away from that material was that in addition to lexical /hw/ (in whales and whine), contrasted with /w/ (in Wales and wine) for some (minority of) American speakers, there’s also expressive /hw/, used for emphasis — to mark especially salient or significant material in discourse, and so to  convey contrast, surprise, disbelief, extravagance, and so on; and to convey connotations of toniness, correctness, fanciness, or elevated diction. (It then follows that when these motivations are absent — in informal, casual, unmonitored speech; in discourse-backgrounded material; and in positions that are relatively unaccented phonetically — pretty much everybody will have /w/.)

And then, of course, there’s variation. There’s almost always variation (even if you think there isn’t any). And variation is well-attested for both lexical and expressive /hw/. But for Cool Whip, no. AmE vocalization of the /l/ in Cool, sure; but a voiceless initial consonant in Whip, no. Well, if you do it (even if you do it intentionally), it’s really weird, some kind of sociophonetic mis-step.

Stewie says it weird. On 5/4, e-mail from John Beavers about my 5/1 “Sequel” posting:

I thought you might enjoy this clip from [the Anerican animated tv show] Family Guy regarding /hw/. In case you don’t know the show, it’s like the risque surreal version of The Simpsons, basically, and the main characters in this clip are Meg (the daughter of the family, who’s generally treated with little respect), Brian (the dog who talks and is generally the most sane character in the show), and Stewie (the infant / toddler who’s also a sinister genius). The set up is that apparently Meg has developed a crush on Brian and has gone a little psycho about it [by baking some of her hair into a pie for him], but the classic bit you might enjoy re /hw/ is when Stewie comes in: (link).

(#1) [screen shot:] Left to right: Stewie (eating a piece of pie with Cool Whip on it), Cool Whip, Brian, pie (with one slice removed)

That was a famous moment from the show, which got referenced many times later in the show’s run. Here’s a compendium: (link)

Faced with Stewie’s repeated productions of [ʍɪp], with highly audible [ʍ], Brian objects: “You’re saying it weird”.

Cool Whip (and Reddi-Wip). From Wikipedia:


Cool Whip is an American brand of imitation whipped cream, referred to as a whipped topping by its manufacturer, Kraft Heinz. It is used in North America as a topping for desserts, and in some no-bake pie recipes as a convenience food or ingredient that does not require physical whipping and can maintain its texture without melting over time.

Cool Whip is sold frozen and must be defrosted in the refrigerator before being used. It has a longer shelf life than cream while frozen. On the other hand, it does not have the same flavor and texture as whipped cream, and costs nearly 50% more per ounce. It was originally marketed as being “non-dairy” despite containing the milk protein casein; it now also includes skimmed milk.

The competitor (trust me; this is relevant), from Wikipedia:


Reddi-Wip is an American brand of sweetened whipped cream propelled from its container by nitrous oxide. It is produced by Conagra Brands … Reddi-Wip remains one of Conagra Brands’ major brands and is the second most eaten brand of whipped topping in the United States, behind Cool Whip.

The whipped topping names. Cool Whip is an Adj + N compound N (like White House, blackbird, and hothouse, but with complex semantics involving the PSP whipped of the V whip). So is Reddi-Wip; the name is a spelling variant of Ready Whip.

The crucial thing here is that the default accentuation pattern for compound nouns in English has primary accent on the first element, tertiary accent on the second (while nominals of the form Adj + N, as in (a) white house, have a secondary accent on the first element, primary accent on the second). That is, the second element in the compounds Cool Whip and Ready Whip have only a weak accent, so even those who contrast /hw/ and /w/ will have the voiced alternative — because, paraphrasing what I said above, in positions that are relatively unaccented phonetically, pretty much everybody will have /w/ rather than /hw/.

As a result, contrasters like me might have /hw/ in the whip of whip(ped) topping, with its secondary accent (though they can be expected to have variable usage, as indeed I do), but they are extremely unlikely to have it in the whip of Cool Whip, with its tertiary accent. In fact, Cool Whip with /hw/ is inconceivable to me, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard that pronunciation. (I was married for 23 years to someone with very robust /hw/ – /w/ contrast, and I’m sure she never said Cool Whip with a /hw/. Ann — whose 85th birthday this would have been today, and that too turns out to be relevant, as is the fact that she grew up in central Kentucky — very much preferred to whip her own cream, or have me or Jacques do it, but there are occasions, like children’s parties, where speed is of the essence, so Cool Whip was not an unknown food product in our household.) The spelling with WH is beside the point.

Those who named Reddi-Wip presumably understood that Reddi-Whip or Ready Whip would have been phonetically inaccurate for contrasters (even though the stuff really is whipped), so they jiggled the spelling.

So what was Stewie doing? It’s extremely unlikely that those who wrote the lines for the Stewie character were contrasters, and, anyway, even contrasters like me don’t have /hw/ in Cool Whip, so the writers must have been aiming for expressive /hw/ rather than lexical /hw/. But nothing in the context of Stewie’s /hw/s would support such a usage: no contrast, no surprise, no correcting, no reason to aim for the fancy. It just comes out of the blue.

Apparently, he only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases. Just pulling the other characters’ chains, as the idiom has it — and he clearly succeeds at that. Just being “a sinister genius”, as John Beavers put it in his e-mail to me.

Some pronunciation facts. From Wikipedia:

The pronunciation of the digraph ⟨wh⟩ in English has changed over time, and still varies today between different regions and accents. It is now most commonly pronounced /w/, the same as a plain initial ⟨w⟩, although some dialects, particularly those of Scotland, Ireland, and the Southern United States, retain the traditional pronunciation /hw/, generally realized as [ʍ], a voiceless “w” sound [AZ: there are other realizations, all involving some voicelessness]. The process by which the historical /hw/ has become /w/ in most modern varieties of English is called the wine–whine merger.

… It causes the distinction to be lost between the pronunciation of ⟨wh⟩ and that of ⟨w⟩, so pairs of words like wine/whine, wet/whet, weather/whether, wail/whale, Wales/whales, wear/where, witch/which become homophones. This merger has taken place in the dialects of the great majority of English speakers.

… According to Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006: 49), using data collected in the 1990s, there are regions of the U.S. (particularly in the Southeast) in which speakers keeping the distinction are about as numerous as those having the merger, but there are no regions in which the preservation of the distinction is predominant … Throughout the U.S. and Canada, about 83% of respondents in the survey had the merger completely, while about 17% preserved at least some trace of the distinction

So turns out to be relevant that I’m a really old guy who grew up in the Northeast around 70 years ago, when contrasters were at least moderately common there; but, apparently, by 30 years ago no younger speakers (under 50) there were contrasters, which is where we are today.

Meanwhile, Ann Daingerfield Zwicky grew up in the Southeast U.S. around 75 years ago, when contrasters were indeed thick on the ground (and her /hw/ usage was quite heavy); by 30 years ago, younger contrasters were still to be found, but they no longer predominated. I believe the usage has continued to decline, but has by no means been extinguished.

Now, my man Jacques, who grew up mostly in Gambier OH (and was only a bit younger than me, though if you come from Ohio your age is pretty much beside the point for lexical /hw/). He had zero lexical /hw/, but he noticed Ann’s and mine, because they jumped out as him as instances of expressive /hw/. So he kept thinking we were exclaiming about stuff ([ʍ] is much more audible than [w]). Ann and I both had expressive /hw/ (which I think Labov et al. didn’t look at at all), and so did he, big time. In actual exclamations, like wow!. And other words spelled with W. And also in words spelled with WH, as in What the hell is that? (I’m pretty sure that none of us had any kind of /hw/ in the what of come what may, which is low in phrasal accent and also unlikely to be contrastively or expressively accented.)

But to get back to WHIP, and in conclusion. You wouldn’t expect the members of the American rock band Devo to have lexical /hw/, but they might have used expressive /hw/ in the heavily accented first word of their song “Whip It!”. But they don’t (it was, however, fun to watch their video again, several times). I then moved on to commercial products named Whip-It, of which there are at least two: a stain removal product (whip those stains away!), and a commercial dispenser for whipped cream. I located some commercials for the first, filmed by a hyperkinetic salesman (in the mold of Offer Shlomi, the ShamWow guy) who was clearly in age and regional accent not a candidate for lexical /hw/, but whose manner of delivery makes him a super-prime candidate for the expressive. Satisfyingly, his usage is variable. (As mine would be, if I were somehow moved to make commercials for Whip-It stain remover.)



7 Responses to “Cool [ʍɪp]”

  1. Lise Menn Says:

    I grew up in a Philadelphia suburb and had no idea that there could be a contrast between ‘whine’ and ‘wine’ – I used to think that saying ‘which witch is which’ was funny because there was no pronunciation difference among those initial sounds in spite of their spelling. However, my husband Bill, who was born in Oxnard CA in 1928, and to whom I was married from 1986 until his death in 2006, had a very clear contrast. I picked it up from him, though I’m sure I was/am inconsistent in using it, and I occasionally caught myself overgeneralizing it or just screwing it up royally in the phrase ‘white wine’, variously ‘white whine’ or ‘wite whine’.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Quite a lot to say here, some about Lise (who is only a year younger than me, and who I think I first met in 1974), some about Bill (who was 12 years older than me, and who I first met in 1964 or 1965). I believe that in the 1940s, lexical /hw/ was already in retreat on the southern edge of the Northeast (while still being pretty robust in NYC and certainly robust in New England), and suspect there might have been a difference between urban speakers (like Lise) and rural ones (like me), with the rural speakers being more conservative. (The big linguistic development in my age cohort was the swamping of older local varieties, especially Pennsylvania Dutch English, by Philadelphia speech.) As for Bill, who grew up in SoCal in the 1930s, he would have been surrounded by Dust Bowl settlers (the “Okie-Arkies”) there, and I know zero about their use of lexical /hw/ at the time. (These days, lexical /hw/ in SoCal would be very peculiar, but these days are almost a century later than those days, and a lot can happen in a century.)

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Chuk Craig on Facebook:

    I think you’ll enjoy this [Family Guy “Wil Wheaton” clip]:

  3. Robert Coren Says:

    I too grew up in the Northeast, and I’m not a whole lot younger than you, and I have never made the w/wh distinction in normal speech. (I don’t recall my mother doing so either – if she had, I would probably have picked it up – and on reflection it seems like the kind of distinction she might well have made; she was a very careful speaker.)

    But it just so happened that soon after reading the earlier post that touched on this topic, I was practicing Ralph Vaughn Williams’ setting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Love’s Minstrels, whose opening lines are “One flame-winged brought a white-winged harp-player / Even where my lady and I lay all alone”, and I noticed that, without thinking about it, I was pronouncing white and where with a distinct /hw/.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well, variation is the thing. There’s always a lot of variation, both within speakers, but, massively, across speakers (and across contexts and over time). Even features that are considered to be characteristic of some dialect area might actually be used by only a minority of the speakers within that area (and the features will crop up elsewhere, well away from their characteristic home).

  4. Stephen R. Anderson Says:

    I was born in Madison, WI, where contrast was the rule. I remember my second grade teacher saying we really ought to spell “wh” words “hw” instead of “wh”. And I assuredly have voiceless w in CoolWhip, ReadyWhip, etc. But then I can’t stand those things, so they may count as foreign lexical items. 🫠

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Lovely. (But I remind you that the stuff is (legally) named Reddi-Wip, and that it is real cream, though with a strange texture and a muted flavor; mostly, Reddi-Wip is a medium of childish play that you can eat if you have a mind to.)

      I doubt very much that contrast survives in Madison these days, much less rules. (We have grown old, my friend.) My impression is that 80-100 years ago, contrast was pretty robust across the Northern Tier states, the Northeast, and the Southeast, while voicing was already general in the upper Midlands area (the classic “Midwest”). Apparently, voicing spread from the center, leaving increasingly small relic areas of contrast along the periphery — a textbook pattern of spread, seen clearly for /hw/ in the British Isles, where the contrast survives mostly in the Celtic fringe, and not even all of that.

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