Know any wimps? Ever let out a little whimper before an unplanned lesson? Tim Bowen takes a look at this flexible word which even has an application in astrophysics!

For a word that has been around for less than a hundred years, the informal noun wimp is quite a flexible word. It generally means 'a cowardly or feeble person' as in 'Dave was a real wimp. He wouldn’t go for a swim with us because he said the water was too cold'.

Apart from the noun, there is also the adjective wimpish (wimpy also exists), which often collocates with 'behaviour', as in 'That was really wimpish behaviour on your part', and also the verb to wimp out, meaning 'to decide not to do something at the last moment because of fear or a lack of confidence', as in 'We all went for a swim but Dave wimped out'.

The most plausible explanation for the origin of wimp is that it comes from whimper (noun or verb), meaning 'a small sound of pain, fear or sadness', as in “The dog whimpered pitifully”. Wimp is also a computer term, where it stands for 'window, icon, menu pointing device' and in astrophysics wimps are 'weakly interacting massive particles'.