Q From Dan Jones: I was wondering if you had a history and or explanation of the phrase whip round.
A This colloquial phrase refers to taking a collection for some informal purpose, such as buying somebody a present. It’s mainly British and Commonwealth usage, not much known in the USA. Its history links the hunting field, the British parliament and the officers’ mess in a regiment.
The original term was whipper-in, a term still used in fox hunting in Britain for an assistant huntsman who stops the hounds from straying by using his whip to drive them back into the main body of the pack. By the 1840s at the latest, this had been abbreviated to just whip.
In Parliament, there have long been officials of each party whose job it is to make sure that MPs attend the votes. In practice their role has always been wider than this — they’re the disciplinarians of the House of Commons who make sure MPs don’t step out of line or do anything silly, and especially that they vote according to their party’s call. By the latter part of the eighteenth century they had started to be jokingly referred to as whippers-in; by the 1840s they too were commonly called whips (as indeed they still are, and not only in the British parliament by any means).
This use of whip became broadened to refer to any appeal for people to take part in some activity — as we still say, to whip up interest or enthusiasm. In officers’ messes, it was common at this period for those attending who wanted more wine than the official issue at dinner to contribute a set amount if they wanted to continue to imbibe — an orderly went round the table with a wine glass into which sums were placed. This collection was also called a whip.
By extension, any call for money among the members of a group was also a whip. The first recorded use is in Thomas Hughes’ novel of 1861, Tom Brown at Oxford: “If they would stand a whip of ten shillings a man, they might have a new boat”. By the 1870s, this term had turned by an obvious process into our modern whip round.