From the Archives: The Origin of the Term “Wobbly”

Poster with the IWW globe reading from top to bottom:  IWW / One Big Union Of All The Workers / The Greatest Thing On Earth
An old IWW poster.

The following is an excerpt from a letter written by Mortimer Downing in the year 1923 and was published in the Industrial Pioneer, an IWW monthly paper.

“How ‘Wobbly’ Originated”

“Up in Vancouver, in 1911, we had a number of Chinese members, and one restaurant keeper would trust any member for meals. He could not pronounce the letter ‘w’, but called it ‘wobble,’ and would ask: “You. I. Wobble Wobble?” and when the card was shown credit was unlimited. Thereafter the laughing term among us was “I. Wobbly Wobbly,” and when Herman Suhr, during the Wheatland strike, wired for all foot-loose “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. Considering its origin, I rather like the nickname. It hints of a fine, practical internationalism, a human brotherhood based on a community of interests and understanding.”

Commentary on “How ‘Wobbly’ Originated”

It has been said to me before that we’ll likely never know the true origin of the word ‘Wobbly’, but this particular story tends to be the one that is told in the history books whenever the enigmatic nickname is discussed. It’s a fun story, especially with the addition of the authorities getting ahold of telegrams using the term ‘Wobbly’ and getting confused. I can just imagine the prosecutor in the court room demanding that the IWW members on trial explain what this word ‘Wobbly’ means with the same confusion that I am greeted with by most people (including some leftists) when I refer to myself as a Wobbly. Entire essays could be written on the meaning of the term, but the question I want to try to answer is ‘why?’

As we are all aware, “Industrial Workers of the World” is a bit of a mouthful, and even “IWW member” is a bit long – nine syllables long to be exact. An earlier nickname for IWW members was the term ‘Industrialist’, but that no doubt fell into disfavor because you could confuse an honest, decent worker with a greedy boss who exploits those who work in factories. In short, the IWW needed an endearing nickname that isn’t long enough to exhaust someone before they finish saying it. ‘Wobbly’ – whatever its origins – fit the bill.

Of course, ‘Wobbly’ also lends itself very well to puns. It would not surprise me if the Wobblies of long ago chose to use the term because they could make bad jokes to the amusement of their fellow workers. When Fellow Worker Suhr wrote the telegram that eventually fell into the hands of the prosecution for his case, ‘Wobbly’ was likely an inside joke understood only by a particular part of the union. But once the authorities started picking it apart and newspapers picked up on it, the term spread like wildfire. The first mention of the word ‘Wobbly’ that I could find outside of IWW publications was a Sacramento Bee article covering the Wheatland Hop Riot trials and Suhr’s telegram. After that article, the word pops up several times, alongside such names and nicknames as “I Won’t Workers” and “Sab Cats”. All things considered, the origin of the word ‘Wobbly’ is quite interesting and I’m quite proud to call myself one (even if folks don’t understand what I’m talking about at first!)

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