What is the Origin of the Term Wobbly?

We get asked that question a lot. The short answer is, we don't actually know, but we have compiled some research that suggests at least four theories of the term's origin. Here are the theories in a nutshell:

  • "Eye Wobble Wobble" - The term originated from a Chinese restaurant owner who could not properly pronounce the "w" in "IWW".
  • "Wobbly Saw" - The term refers to a special kind of lumber mill saw often used (or modified) by IWW members.
  • "Wobbling the Works; Sabotage" - The term is a code for "sabotage" or "direct action at the point of production".
  • "Wobbly as an Insult" - The term was coined by the boss class and gladly accepted by the IWW in defiance.

Each theory is considered below and discussed in detail.

Theory #1 - "Eye Wobble Wobble"

Also known as the "Chinese Restaurant Owner Theory", this is the most often cited and embellished theory. There exists plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this theory as being factual. We quote from Three Original Sources:

(1) An original source document:

In Vancouver, in 1911, we had a number of Chinese members, and one restaurant keeper would trust any member for means. He could not pronounce the letter "w" (due to the "l" sounds in the pronunciation of the letter), but called it "wobble" and would ask, "you Eye Wobble Wobble?" and when the [red] card was shown credit was unlimited. Thereafter the laughing term amongst us was "I Wobbly Wobbly".

--Mortimer Downing, IWW Member. Quoted in Jack Scott, "How the Wobblies Got their Name," in his Plunderbund and Proletariat (Vancouver, BC.: North Star Books, 1975), p. 153. Also quoted in Jerry Lembcke and William M. Tattam, One Union in Wood, A Political History of the International Woodworkers of America (New York, NY.: International Publishers and Madeira Park, BC.: Harbour Publishing, © 1984), pp. 188-89 n31.

(2) The following account is from the Official IWW History:

It was at this time (1912 during a "thousand mile picket line" railway strike in British Columbia) that the term "Wobbly" as nick-name for IWW came into use. Previously they had been called many things from International Wonder Workers to I Won't Works. The origin of the expression "Wobbly" is uncertain. Legend assigns it to the lingual difficulties of a Chinese restaurant keeper with whom arrangements had been made during this strike to feed members passing through his town. When he tried to ask "Are you I.W.W.?" it is said to have come out: "All loo eye wobble wobble?" The same situation, but in Vancouver is given as the 1911 origin of the term by Mortimer Downing in a letter quoted in Nation, Sept. 5, 1923..."

--From The IWW: Its First Seventy Years 1905-1975 by Fred W. Thompson and Patrick Murfin, November 1976, IWW: Chicago (now Philadelphia) pp. 66-67

(3) This account is further elaborated in the following quote:

The word "Wobbly", a nickname for IWW members, humorously illustrates the union's efforts to combat racism. A Chinese restaurant keeper in Vancouver in 1911 supported the union and would extend credit to members. Unable to pronounce the letter "w", he would ask if a man was in the "I Wobble Wobble". Local members jokingly referred to themselves as part of the "I Wobbly Wobbly," and by the time of the Wheatland strike of 1913, "Wobbly" had become a permanent moniker for workers who carried the red card. Mortimer Downing, a Wobbly who first explained the etymology, noted that the nickname "hints of a fine, practical internationalism, a human brotherhood based on a community of interests and of understanding."

--Mark Leier, Where the Fraser River Flows, The Industrial Workers of the World in British Columbia (Vancouver, BC.: New Star Books, 1990), p 35.


Weighing the Evidence:

Conceivably, Downing's account could be the honest truth. The IWW was the first labor union in North America to refuse to discriminate against Chinese and Chinese Americans. (Many earlier left-wing organizations, including the Greenback Labor Party and the Knights of Labor discriminated vehemently against Chinese and Japanese Americans. Former members of these organizations (such as George Speed) later joined the IWW and jettisoned their racism). Such interracial solidarity most certainly did not go unnoticed in the Chinese American community, and they would likely have responded favorably to the IWW.

However, all the evidence of the "Chinese Restaurateur Theory" stems from Downing's letter. There is no known independent source that verifies Downing's story. His account may just as easily be a romanticized embellishment of the truth, or it could be pure fiction, and there is no credible proof that it isn't. Downing's narrative also suggests deeply ingrained stereotypical views of Chinese and Chinese-American speech patterns, even by 1911 standards.

Quoting Mark Leier again:

In a letter to the author, dated 31 January 1989, Craig M. Carver, managing editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English states that the Chinese restaurateur version is not given "much credence ... because the story is simply unverifiable." Those with a scientific bent must conclude that the etymology is unknown; romantics may choose to stick with Downing.

--Mark Leier, Where the Fraser River Flows, The Industrial Workers of the World in British Columbia (Vancouver, BC.: New Star Books, 1990), p 35.

Theory #2 - "The Wobbly Saw"

Lesser known than the "Eye Wobble Wobble" legend, the "Wobbly Saw" origin has gained some adherents in more recent years. Quoting Fred Thompson again:

Mencken in his American Language doubts this explanation. Some credit the term to Otis of the Los Angeles Times, an avid opponent of the IWW. Some lingual difficulty seems most likely to have been behind it, for in its sense of vacillating it fits no accusation ever made against IWW, and about the only meaning of wobbly that could conceivably fit is that of "wobble-saw," a circular saw mounted askew to cut a groove wider than its own thickness.

This is also mentioned by Mark Leier and he adds:

In his fictional account of the Centralia events, Dead March, Willimantic, Connecticut: Curbstone Press, 1980, p. 8, Tom Churchill cites a Wobbly who gives the "wobble saw" derivation but claims it was a saw that "cut in both directions".

Weighing the Evidence:

In all likelihood the "wobble saw" theory is more implausible than the Chinese Restaurant theory. While Downing's letter (supporting the "Eye Wobble Wobble" theory) lacks verifiable evidence, The "Wobble Saw" legend lacks even a known original source!

All sources that support the "wobble saw" theory date from a later date than Downing's account (1911). Fred Thompson had a thorough knowledge of IWW history (since he was a part of it for so long), but he doesn't offer any hard evidence, therefore one must conclude that he was making a guess.

The historical evidence doesn't support the theory. The theory posits that the IWW had a strong presence in sawmills prior to 1911. This is generally not the case. The IWW tended to organize the unorganized, unskilled, and foreign born workers, i.e. loggers, choker setters, and pond monkeys for example. Mill workers tended to be skilled, and much more likely to be organized by the AFL unions. The IWW and the AFL often clashed over who would organize sawmill workers in the Pacific Northwest during this time, and the AFL usually prevailed. The IWW didn't have major success organizing lumber workers in large numbers until 1917 and after, which all postdates Downing's account.

Theory #3 - "Wobbling the Works" (a Code for "Sabotage")

It is entirely possible that "wobbly" refers to workers withdrawing efficiency from the job, as if walking on wooden sabots (the true origin of the term "sabotage"). Certainly those walking on wooden sabots would have a wobbly walk! Since the IWW adopted the use of sabotage as a tactic (at least in theory) and the wooden sabot as a symbol for direct action on the job, this could also be the origin of the term. Downing's letter may have been a deliberate fabrication to obscure the "sabot" origin, since, even in 1911, the IWW faced government repression for advocating sabotage.

It is also true that the term, "wobbling the works" a synonym for "direct action on the job" or "sabotage" could refer to making saws "wobble" and therefore cut less sharply, but this could be a later explanation than Downing's Chinese Restaurant story. Certainly no evidence of this origin or the Wobble Saw theory has been located by Leier, whose research on this subject is very thorough.

Theory #4 - "Wobbly" As a Pejorative Slur by the Boss Class

There also remains the possibility of an unknown fourth origin for the term, such as the use of the term as a pejorative by employers. IWW members may well have been dismissed as "wobbly", i.e. drunk (a well known derogatory term for the IWW was, "I Want Whiskey", odd especially considering the fact that the IWW organized dehorn squads to shut down establishments that sold alcohol during prohibition, so that general strikes, such as that in Seattle in 1919 would not be undermined by drunken workers). The IWW more than once adopted pejorative terms hurled at them by the boss press and used them to their advantage, just as Wobbly folksingers would recycle Salvation Army and Church hymns and write pro-labor songs using the folk process. Quoting Downing again:

[W]hen Herman Suhr, during the Wheatfield Strikes, wired for all footloose Wobblies to hurry there, of course the prosecution made a mountain of mystery out of it, and the term has stuck to us ever since.

Of course, this is mentioned in the same letter where Downing offers the Chinese Restaurant theory, and it suggests that the term originated among IWW members first, was used as an insult by the boss class and boss press, and gladly accepted by the Wobblies in any case. Again, the evidence still favors the Chinese Restaurant theory, even though there is no independent evidence for it whatsoever.

Conclusion

There may be other theories still, and some are discussed in various books, but none are any more conclusive than these we have offered.

A more thorough discussion of the origin theories are discussed in Green Wobblies, Pile Butts, and Other Heroes: Laborlore Explorations, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993., but the author can offer no strong evidence for any theory either.

All of our research has shown so far that the origin of the term Wobbly cannot be determined, and so we have to unfortunately admit that we don't honestly know the answer. Though the true origin of the epithet "Wobbly" remains a mystery, most of us IWW members gladly use it to describe ourselves, because the term has become an integral part of the IWW's history and culture. Enough said.