Whip is a word that is used in a variety of contexts with different senses, and I’m only going to be exploring the development of its political senses here—in both British and US political parlance, a whip is the official who maintains party discipline in the legislature and ensures the members and representatives vote the way the party wants them to. While we know the general outlines of the word’s origins, the specifics are lost to the ages.

Various cognates of whip exist in most of the Germanic languages, like Dutch, Low German, and High German. The word is first recorded in English in the thirteenth century, but which language, or languages, it was borrowed from is not known for certain. Its Proto-Indo-European root is weip-, which carries a sense of vertical movement, to dance, to leap, etc. Other words with this same PIE root include wipe and vibrate.

It appears in English first as a verb. From the poem The Owl and the Nightingale, written some time before 1250:

Þi song mai bo so longe genge Þat þu shalt wippen on a sprenge.

(Your song may be so successful that you shall whip in a snare.)

The sense meaning to strike appears about a century later in the c. 1380 poem Sir Ferumbras:

Roland smot þe kyng Lambrok ; wan he was ameued,
In þe necke ; þat wyþ þat strok ; A wypede of his heued.

(Roland smote King Lambrok, when he was aroused,
in the necke, so that with that stroke a-whipped off his head.)

The noun appears c. 1325 in a gloss of the Norman French word fowette (modern French fouet).

The political sense gets it start with the term whipper-in, originally a reference to the servant in charge of keeping the hounds on the scent during a hunt. It appears in John Hildrop’s 1739 An Essay for the Better Regulation and Improvement of Free-Thinking:

Should the Helper in the Stables pretend to the Office of Valet de Chambre, the Postilion turn Cook, and the Whipper in resolve to be nothing less than Steward or Butler, I fancy neither your Stables, your Kitchen, your Wardrobe, nor your Exchequer, would long be in tolerable Order.

Whipper-in is shortened to whip about a century later. From William Thackeray’s 1848 Vanity Fair:

The two whips clad in stained scarlet frocks—light hard-featured lads on well-bred lean horses, possessing marvellous dexterity in casting the points of their long heavy whips at the thinnest part of any dog’s skin who dares to straggle from the main body.

Whipper-in is applied to the British Parliament by 1772, where it refers to the person charged with party discipline. From the Annual Register of that year:

He was first a whipper-in to the Premier, and then became Premier himself.

And in parliamentary usage whipper-in too is shortened to whip by the mid nineteenth century. Again from Thackeray, this time the 1850 novel, The History of Pendennis:

There was Captain Raff, the honourable member for Epsom, who retired after the last Goodwood races, having accepted, as Mr. Hotspur, the whip of the party, said, a mission to the Levant.

But before that, whip had come to mean the action of whipping party members. From the 26 February 1828 diary of Edward Law, the First Earl of Ellenborough:

I hear Planta did not send out the notes for the division to-night till yesterday evening, so that there was a general idea it was not to be made a Government question, and many men having dissenting constituents have pledged themselves. Others are not coming up. On the other side there is a perfect whip.

In other words, Law is recording that the Tory government was having problems whipping its members on this particular issue, while the opposition was united.

In British usage, whip is also used to refer to a written circular, distributed to party members that tells them how they are expected to vote. This sense dates to at least 1879 in T. H. S. Escott’s England: Its People, Polity, and Pursuits:

Having issued the whip, the great thing for the whip himself is to see that members do not slip through his fingers.

This circular is sometimes called a one-line, two-line, or three-line whip. The numbers are a reference to the number of times an upcoming vote is underlined in the paper. Party members are encouraged to vote the way the party wants on a one-line whip, expected to vote along with the party on a two-line whip, and must vote with the party on a three-line whip or be expelled from the party. These uses date to at least 1903. From a speech by Thomas Baring in the House of Lords, 22 May 1903:

I was very surprised yesterday to receive a little paper, vulgarly called a whip — it was a three-line whip — from the Unionist Whip, to this effect — Your Lordship’s attendance is particularly requested to support the Outdoor Relief (Friendly Societies) Bill.

Those who fail to obey a three-line whip have the whip removed or withdrawn. In other words, they cease to receive party instructions and are expelled from the party. They retain their seats in parliament, but without party support are unlikely to be re-elected. This phrasing dates to at least 1932, when John McGovern spoke in the House of Commons on 3 Feb 1932:

A few men on the Front Bench give orders: They meet in secret conclave and then say, “We have decided to introduce this, and you have got to support us, or else we will withdraw the Whip from you, withdraw the money bags; we will turn you adrift.”

The sense of whip, that of the official responsible for party discipline, is used on both sides of the Atlantic, but the other political senses and phrases aren’t used in American legislative discourse.


American Heritage Dictionary, fifth edition, 2019, s. v. whip.

Davies, Mark. Hansard Corpus. Part of the SAMUELS project, 2015.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. whip, n., whip, v., whipper-in, n.

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