Why Whip Poor Will? – Part I

For birders today, “Whip-poor-will,” the bird’s song and name, may land on our ears as a single, three syllable word. But the phrase is, in fact, a coherent, but brutal, sentence: Whip Poor Will. As in, administer a whipping to an unfortunate person named Will. Why would a night bird carry an association with corporal punishment? And what are the cultural legacies of this naming?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known reference to the “Whip-poor-will” dates to 1709. That year, the English naturalist John Lawson published A New Voyage to the Carolinas, in which he documented the regions many bird species. Of the Whip-poor-will (then “Whippoo-Will”), Lawson wrote

Whippoo-Will, so nam’d, because it makes those Words exactly. They are the Bigness of a Thrush, and call their Note under a Bush, on the Ground, hard to be seen, though you hear them never so plain. They are more plentiful in Virginia, than with us in Carolina;

In truth, Whip-poor-wills don’t make those words exactly. Their English-language name took on the more precise enunciation of “poor,” rather than “poo.” And other spellings exist, which suggest slightly different intonations of the Whip-poor-wills’s song, depending on the native language of the human doing the naming. The OED, for instance, includes “Whipperwill,” “Wipperwill,” and “wippervill.”

Of course, the bird does not utter any of these phrases. They are, instead, approximations of the bird’s songs. Or, more accurately, translations of an animal language into various human ones.

In 1771, the Finnish naturalist Pehr Kalm recognized this of the name. In Volume 2 of Travels into North America, Kalm describes the Whip-poor-will at length. In the passage I’ve excerpted below, he reflects on the name and the bird’s song. I’ve bolded key sentences for my purposes here.

The Swedes give the name of Whipperiwill and the English that of Whip-poor- will to a kind of nocturnal bird whose voice is heard in North America almost throughout the whole night. Catesby and Edwards both have described and figured it. Dr Linnæus calls it a variety of the Caprimulgus Europæus of Goat sucker: its shape, colour, size, and other qualities, make it difficult to distinguish them from each other. But the peculiar note of the American one distinguishes it from the European one and from all other birds : it is not found here during winter but returns with the beginning of summer. I heard it to day for the first time and many other people said that they had not heard it before this summer; its English and Swedish name is taken from its note; but accurately speaking it does not call Whipperiwill nor Whip-poor-will but rather Whipperiwhip so that the first and last syllables are accented and the intermediate ones but slightly pronounced. The English change the call of this bird into Whip-poor-will that it may have some kind of signification.

But even Kalm’s Whipperiwhip, which preserves the syllable “whip,” is a stretch. Granted, my ears are among the least musical I know: but I do not think the first syllable of the Whip-poor-will’s song must be “Whip.” (Of course it need not be this word. The Whip-poor-will’s language is not that of the colonizers who met it so many generations after the bird first learned its song.)

Still, Kalm’s insight about English naming practices is critical here. In naming the bird “Whip-poor-will,” the English sought “some kind of signification.” They transformed what they heard the bird sing into a three syllable phrase, and that phrase had a coherence. Out of the bird’s song, they created a sentence and one that describes an act of violence, the whipping of a Will. So we must wonder: why whip poor Will?

On Whipping, Briefly

To answer this question, we have to leave the world of birds for the world of criminology, discipline, and punishment.

Whipping was not unfamiliar to the English, nor, according to the political scientist Darius Rejali, any society in which “humans depended on the strength of animals for transportation and power.”1 The history of whipping, in other words, is one that reflects the relationship of dominance between the human species and non-human species.

This history also reflects relationships of dominance between people. For a time, the British outfitted their princes with “whipping-boys,” who would suffer the punishment for the offences of the royals.2 Whipping and flogging, meanwhile, were also standard punishments in the British army, navy, and colonies. In another example of the animal world and British violence coinciding, among the British’s most notorious whips was the “cat-o’-nine-tails.”3

USS Constitution Museum, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The English brought these practices with them to the Americas. In Crime and Punishment in American History, the historian Lawrence Friedman describes whipping as “an extremely common punishment throughout the colonies, especially for servants and slaves.”4

Friedman documents whipping for crimes that, by modern standards, hardly seem crimes at all – idle walking on the Sabbath and running away from home, for instance. These were offenses to the moral life of the community or to social order. They were often victimless crimes (if we can call them crimes at all). “The courts,” Friedman writes, “enforced discipline. In a way, it was a crime just to be a bad citizen: not to conform to standards of good virtue and respectability.”5

Corporal punishment, generally, and whipping, more specifically, appear so woven into the social, legal, and cultural fabric of the British colonies that they could imagine a bird singing of it.

In other words, the European encounters with the Whip-poor-will were shaped by the legal and social practices of the time, just as they were shaped by pre-existing assumptions about their continent’s own Goatsucker.

This is the first of two blogs on the “Whip” in “Whip-poor-wills” name. The second addresses cultural legacies of this naming.


  1. Rejali, Darius. Torture and Democracy. Princeton University Press, 2007. p. 270.
  2. “whipping-boy, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2022. Web. 11 August 2022.

    “whipping boy.” Useful Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, Martin Manser, 1st edition, 2018. Credo Reference. Accessed 11 Aug. 2022.
  3. Rejali, Darius. Torture and Democracy. Princeton University Press, 2007. p. 270.
  4. Friedman, Lawrence Meir. Crime and Punishment In American History.  New York: Basic Books, 1993, page 37.
  5. Friedman, Lawrence Meir. Crime and Punishment In American History.  New York: Basic Books, 1993, page 38.

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Author: Jared Del Rosso

Writer, Birder, Sociologist, Educator. Currently writing a book on Whip-poor-wills in American culture.

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