The primary meanings of the noun whammy, of American-English origin, are:
– an evil spell or curse, as in the phrase to put the whammy on somebody,
– and a supernatural power bringing bad luck.
This word seems to be derived from the onomatopoeic noun wham, denoting (the sound produced by) a forceful blow or impact.
The earliest occurrences of whammy that I have found indicate that this word arose in baseball parlance, and in the north-eastern states of Pennsylvania and New York.
The first is from the column Chilly Sauce, by Charles Joseph ‘Chilly’ Doyle (1884-1959), in the Pittsburgh Gazette Times (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) of Saturday 14th May 1927—whammy is used attributively:
National League Hurlers Best—Bush.
New York, May 13.—(Staff Special.) Donie Bush1 was an active performer in the American league for 15 years, but the senior major circuit has made a big impression on the spirited leader of the Buccaneers.
Bush never saw Alexander2 work until he buckled into the Pirates in St. Louis. Aleck won a hairline decision over Vic Aldridge on that occasion and he added another triumph at Forbes Field more recently. Donie thinks Aleck is a wonder.
“And he looks to me like a wish pitcher,” said Bush, “besides his remarkable skill he seems to have the faculty of making a batter go after bad balls, even when Aleck is in the hole. I guess he has a ‘whammy’ ball or something. He makes you go after it whether you want to or not.”
1 Owen Joseph ‘Donie’ Bush (1887-1972) was an American baseball player and manager.
2 Grover Cleveland Alexander (1887-1950) was an American baseball pitcher.
The second-earliest occurrence of whammy that I have found is from Nize Boys, by Jimmy Powers, published in the Daily News (New York City, N.Y.) of Friday 17th April 1931—the author gave an account of a baseball match between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia team at Baker Bowl, Philadelphia:
Philadelphia, April 16.—Ha, I guess our Giants are pretty good at staving off the old whammy or bad luck ghost, eh? You see this nightmarish Baker bowl is no bigger than your grandmother’s china closet […].
Another early instance is from the column Breezes from the Bushes, by “Doc” Silva, in the Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) of Friday 2nd September 1932:
Lefty Tezak, former Bird, who has been hurling for the Birdsboro Lions, put the whammy on the West Monocacy club Sunday, allowing three hits and beating them, 6 to 1.
The noun whammy soon came to be used in the sense of a potent force or attack. The following, for example, is from the column Joe Williams Says, in The Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) of Friday 25th February 1938:
New York, Feb. 25—To many of the cauliflower savants it seemed as if Joe Louis3 displayed extraordinary savagery in putting the crusher4 or whammy on Natie Mann in the recent blood letting at the Garden.
3 Joseph Louis Barrow (1914-81) was an American boxer.
4 Here, crusher denotes something which overpowers.
The primary meaning of double whammy is an evil spell or curse more potent than a whammy.
The earliest occurrences that I have found indicate that this term originated in boxing.
The first is from the column At Random In Sportdom, by Al Del Greco, in the Bergen Evening Record (Hackensack, New Jersey) of Friday 29th April 1938:
Double Whammy On Mox
Every day the dope points to the fact that Joe Louis will knock out Max Schmeling5 when they meet in the Yankee Stadium, June 22.
Max will go into the ring with what Murray Robinson6 calls a double whammy for Jack Dempsey7 and Gene Tunney8, both former heavyweight champions, have picked Mox to stiffen Joe.
Anytime a heavyweight champ puts the whammy on a fighter, he’s done just as sure as shooting. A double whammy is a certain hex.
5 Maximillian Adolph Otto Siegfried Schmeling (1905-2005) was a German boxer.
6 Here, Murray Robinson probably designates the author of the sports column Calling the Turn.
7 William Harrison ‘Jack’ Dempsey (1895-1983) was an American boxer.
8 James Joseph ‘Gene’ Tunney (1897-1978) was an American boxer.
In early use, double whammy was especially associated with the American boxer and boxing manager Benjamin ‘Evil Eye’ Finkle (1899-1978), who reputedly hexed his fighters’ opponents; according to Donald Dewey in Ray Arcel: A Boxing Biography (McFarland & Company, Inc. – Jefferson North Carolina, 2012), Finkle explained “that his perennially bloodshot right eye had evil powers that he could direct at will against opposition boxers”.
Benjamin Finkle appears in the second-earliest instance of double whammy that I have found; the following is from Ben Evil Eye Finkle and Sam Sobel Sign Famous Presto Peace Pact, by Everett Clay, published in The Miami Herald (Miami, Florida) of Wednesday 21st February 1940:
Finkle has been giving the “Eye” some preliminary maneuvers in the Washington and Baltimore area and two weeks ago succeeded in turning in one of the greatest achievements of his long career.
Finkle’s client on this occasion was the corpulent Mickey McAvoy who was opposed to venerable Natie Brown. At ring-time odds favored the latter as high as 20-to-1.
“Evil Eye” was, however, undaunted. With the sound of the opening bell he focused Brown with the “Slobodka Stare,” usually an effective gleam to start with. But Brown acted unimpressed. He pasted McAvoy pretty thoroughly. The same situation developed in the second.
Midway in the third Finkle displayed great versatility. He saw that he was making no headway with Brown. He diverted his attention, brought his man, McAvoy, into gaze and then strange things happened.
Though no one saw the punch, McAvoy suddenly went into a swirl, rocked convulsively and fell, landing agonizingly in a supine position. The house was in bedlam. No one actually knew what happened. But the “Eye,” held his ground. He looked fixedly at the referee, casting a “Double Whammy” as he later explained, and the official picked up the prostrate form.
“McAvoy wins on a foul,” the referee said, still under Finkle’s spell, and for the first time in several years, and even though the “no foul” rule has long been invoked in the Capital City, the decision stood.
The earliest occurrence that I have found of double whammy in its current sense of a twofold blow or setback is from The Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Alabama) of Monday 31st May 1943:
Brooklyn Wins Twin Bill From Reds, 6-0, 10-6
DiMaggio Still Hot As Bucs Stop Phils Twice
Cincinnati, May 30.—(AP)—The Cincinnati Reds lost their fifth consecutive Sunday doubleheader today—this time it was the Brooklyn Dodgers who put the double whammy on the Queen City boys by scores of 6 to 0 and 10 to 6 before a crowd of 22,146.
INFLUENCE OF LI’L ABNER
Both the terms whammy and double whammy were popularised by the American cartoonist Al Capp (Alfred Gerald Caplin – 1909-79) in the comic strip Li’l Abner (1934-77): the character Evil-Eye Fleegle—said to be based on Benjamin ‘Evil Eye’ Finkle—could paralyse someone with the sheer power of his gaze, single whammy denoting a look with one eye, and double whammy a look with both eyes.
This influence is illustrated by the following from an article about Dr. Carl Ferdinand Cori and Dr. Gerty Theresa Cori, his wife, co-recipients of the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) of Sunday 2nd November 1947:
Tommy, 11-year-old son of the Nobel winners, listens with amusement as his mother reads one of the more ponderous passages from “Swiss Family Robinson.” An energetic boy of no noticeable scientific bent, Tommy had just put a “double whammy” on the photographer. The double whammy is a form of the evil eye that recently figured in the Li’l Abner comic strip.
Evil-Eye Fleegle described his powers in one of the episodes of Li’l Abner, published, for example, in The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, Iowa) of Sunday 11th April 1948:
“Evil-Eye” Fleegle is th’ name, an’ th’ “whammy” is my game. Mudder Nature endowed me wit’ eyes which can putrefy citizens t’ th’ spot!! Obsoive th’ case of th’ fat fruiterer and th’ young squoit!!
Wit’ merely a casual glance, I transfuses both of ’em t’ th’ spot!!—Dis is known to th’ terrified natives as th’ “t’ree-quarter whammy,” sufficient for most ordinary poiposes—
Then—there is th’ “single whammy”!! That, friend, is th’ full, pure power o’ one o’ my evil eyes!!—It’s dynamite, friend, an’ I do not t’row it around lightly!!
After that, comes th’ high-power stuff. The “1¼ whammy”—sufficient t’ stop a herd o’ oxen in full flight—The “1½ whammy,” wid which I once stopped th’ entire “Liverlips” mob, fleein’ in twelve armored limousines—
And, lastly—th’ “double whammy”—namely, th’ full power o’ both eyes—which I hopes I never hafta use—because, in my opinion, it might endanger and louse up th’ univoise!!