Wednesday, March 4, 2009


whorl [hwôrl]
n. anything shaped like a coil or a spiral

[Derives from Old English hweorfa, which was the coil of a spindle]

A plant, tree, rock, animal, sand dune or even a pile of laundry shaped in a coil form can be called a whorl. Spiral shells, like those of snails and many sea creatures, are whorls. Princess Leia from Star Wars infamy had whorled hair.

Whorl is, not surprisingly, related to the common word whirl ("to spin in circles"). While whorl is always a noun -- it has a few more technical definitions than the one I give above -- whirl can be a verb or a noun. You can give a record a whirl. Or you can whirl cake batter. Perhaps the most famous whirlers are the whirling dervishes ("Sufi Muslims, principally in Turkey, whose actions include ecstatic dancing and whirling").

In Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, the Jimmy Stewart character (Detective Scotty Ferguson) suffers from the malady vertigo ("a disordered state in which the individual or the individual's surroundings seem to whirl dizzily"). When Scotty is high above ground and looks down, the world below starts whirling in his mind. To describe that state, we have the adjective, spawned from vertigo, vertiginous ("whirling; spinning; rotary").

In Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg describes a scene in 1966 where he showed pictures he had taken in a desert in India to children in rain soaked Vietnam:
I passed out at the meeting photos I had taken of the sandcastle classrooms. They showed thick whorls of sand drifting across the floor under a light breeze.

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