Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

Boohoo, wah, and diddums: words of fake sympathy

Here’s my latest column—written for learners of English—from the Malaysia Star.

Sometimes, when you are explaining how someone done you wrong (a very informal and not altogether grammatical way of saying someone “treated you badly”), a listener will hold up a hand and slowly rub his index finger and thumb together.

If you’ve never seen this before, you’ll likely say, “What’s that?” Of course you will. They’re being rather obvious about it, almost begging you to ask.

Then they say with a smug look – smug means “self-satisfied” or “excessively proud” – “It’s the world’s tiniest violin. And it’s playing for you!”

In the movies, a violin is the kind of instrument used to play sentimental and weepy solos during scenes in which a hero meets his death or a mother loses a child.

By comparing your sob story – your tale of woe, your recounting of your misfortunes – to something very dramatic that might require the sorrowful sounds of strings, your listener is saying they do not agree with you. They think you are melodramatic or wrong. They have no sympathy for you.

(“Playing” the world’s tiniest violin is funny just once, at most. It’s often not funny at all. Play it too often and you’re a boor – a rude person.)

By the way, in another conversation that two-fingered gesture might mean money, although the thumb and the index finger rub together much faster in a way that resembles counting out banknotes.

There are a wide variety of terms used to treat sympathy, or lack of it.

Boohoo might be the most common one. Outside of books for the very young, boohoo is used mostly to pretend to be crying – it’s onomatopoeic, meaning that it sounds vaguely like weeping and is an imitative word – or, as in the case of the tiniest violin, to mock someone else.

If a family member complains about the way you pack their suitcase, you might say, “Well, boohoo. If you don’t like the way I do it, then do it yourself.”

Wah is the same: it sounds like a young baby crying, so much so that when my son was very young, my wife and I would joke that he had read the baby handbook. Many of his cries of frustration sound exactly like wah. But again, it’s mostly used for imitation or for making fun of someone else.

Decades later, I can just hear my brother and me taunting my little sister (little is sometimes used to mean “younger”) with a fake baby talk: “Wah, pwoor widdle baby gonna kwy?” (“Wah, poor little baby going to cry?”).

In British English there’s a similar word, diddums, which began more or less as a nonsense word for soothing a child but now is often used as a way of expressing fake sympathy, which is to say, no sympathy at all.

A: “Watch where you’re going!”
B: “Oh, diddums fall down?”

Too bad! is another one. It means, “You don’t like it? I don’t care.” If someone says, “You’re driving too fast!” you might respond, “Too bad! If you don’t like it, you can get out and walk.”

Be careful with too bad. Although it can be said if you intend to show genuine sympathy to someone, I believe it is more often used to show false sympathy.

If someone says, “I didn’t get that job I wanted,” you could say “Too bad!” but you had better punch (say) those words so that the “too” is louder and so there’s real emotion there. You need to look sorry for them. Otherwise, it might sound like you’re using “too bad” to be unsympathetic and dismissive.

The go-to source (meaning the one place where you’re sure to find answers) for this kind of language is the work of Iona and Peter Opie. These two folklorists and fieldworkers have a couple of fantastic books about children.

The best one of the bunch is The Lore And Language Of Schoolchildren. In a section called “Unpopular Children: Jeers And Torments,” the Opies offer long lists of taunting names, epithets, and scornful rhymes gathered from both sides of the Atlantic. A typical rhyme used to taunt a child who is being picked on (who is being made fun of):

Cry, baby, cry,
Put your finger in your eye,
And tell your mother
It wasn’t I.

Of course, the language changes, so the Opies did not collect evidence for tough cookies!, which is used the same as “too bad!”

One step up from the unsympathetic tough cookies is tough titty, which is mildly rude, and even further up is tough shit, which is thoroughly rude and not the sort of thing you’d say to anyone except very good friends.

The Opies also have nothing on sucks to be you, which, like the tiniest violin, shows no sympathy to someone who has told a terrible tale of woe.

You are now sufficiently linguistically equipped to be seven years old on an American playground.

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Grant Barrett