When Daniel Andrews commented on how different the treatment accorded to NSW by the Federal Government was to the treatment Victoria received when it went into lockdown, he was promptly labelled a whinger by various people. This led me to consider the place that the whinger has in Australian culture.
There are aspects of our collective identity that we regard as virtues – being fair dinkum, being loyal to mates, standing up to adversity, being irreverent to authority, and there are vices among which dobbing is probably the most loathsome, followed closely by bludging, and whinging.
The word is ultimately from Scottish and northern dialects and is a variant of whine. I was surprised to find that in the OED it was not marked as Australian English, and that it did not appear at all in the Australian National Dictionary, because I felt that it had a stronger place in our variety of English than it had in any other. I was right about it not being part of American English. Whingeing has made a late appearance there in the last few decades. One theory is that the popularity of Harry Potter books brought it to the attention of American readers. Harry grows up in a suburb called Little Whingeing. Previously you would have been hard put to find whingeing except in localities with a predominantly Irish character, with bellyaching and bitching doing the job instead.
In British English you can find whingeing kids and you can find the odd injunction not to be a whinger, but it has no great frequency. Scottish English and Irish English is of course another matter.
In Australia a kid who can whinge effectively is a nightmare for a parent, but this is a recognised behaviour among children and there is lots of advice on how to deal with it. It is when adults whinge that matters become more serious.
The aspects of adult whingeing that are particularly unpleasant are that it is complaining about something that can’t be helped, or is in fact a trivial matter, or about something that the whinger refuses to do anything about. It is complaining that goes on at some length, is exaggerated beyond what is warranted, and is totally self-centred.
The moment you label someone a whinger you are immediately belittling the significance of their complaint and you are attacking them personally. Words associated with whinger are cry-baby and sook. A whinger has no ability to deal with life’s problems with the courage and resilience displayed by the battler. The whinger has no strength of character.
If you want to round out the insult you can adopt the phrase whinger and whiner. We all like the alliteration but the British seem to favour this phrase, probably because for them whiner explains whinger. For Australians there is a bit of difference between the two. Whining emphasises the high-pitched and irritating sound. Whingeing is about the constant complaint.
The whingeing Pom became a stereotype in the 1960s in Australia in the heyday of the ten-pound Pom. One such migrant interviewed for a book The Immigrants (pub. 1977) felt the description had a grain of truth initially because British migrants, despite embarking on a huge venture into another country, seemed unable to cope with any change in their daily circumstances. As the interviewee put it: ‘The English have always been very insular, and people from the more deprived parts are used to the same pattern of things. They’ve lived such narrow lives in these dark miserable little satanic mills and they don’t know how to cope with change.’
The example given was that, despite coming out on an Italian ship, the British turned up their noses at spaghetti.
Whingers are often described as perpetual or perennial whingers, full-time and chronic whingers. More recently they have become serial whingers.
Whinger is a word that pops up frequently in the political sphere. It is often employed by governments in dismissing the criticism of oppositions. Greiner was, in opposition, dubbed ‘whinger, whiner, one-line Greiner’. Keating called John Howard (as Leader of the Opposition) ‘just a little whinger, whingeing around on radio stations attacking me personally, hour in, hour out’. Latham described Gerard Henderson as ‘that most despised of Australian characters: a little whinger’.
So it comes as no surprise that the representatives of the Federal Government now should employ it against Daniel Andrews. Now that Andrews has come up with the line ‘The Prime Minister for New South Wales’, the taunts of whinger have ceased, and the Federal Government has decided to treat all states equally.