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Extracts from the Oxford English Dictionary
1. Name of various toys that are whirled, twirled, or spun round. 1686 R. BLOME Gentl. Recr. II. 148 Pulling the Line you may make the Looking-Glass play in and out as Children do a Whirlegig... Keep it turning that the twinkling of the Glass against the Sun may provoke the Larks to come to view it. 1728 POPE Dunc. III. 57 As..whirligigs, twirl'd round by skilful swain, Suck the thread in, then yield it out again. 1811 Sporting Mag. XXXVIII. 220 They hold each other tight by the middle,
and so go round like whirligigs.
2. Applied to various mechanical contrivances having a whirling or rotatory movement; spec. (a) an instrument of punishment formerly used, consisting of a large cage suspended so as to turn on a pivot; (b) a roundabout or merry-go-round. 1788 GROSE Milit. Antiq. II. 204 One [punishment] formerly very common, for trifling offences,..was the whirligig;..a kind of circular wooden cage,
which turn'd on a pivot; and..whirled round with such an amazing velocity, that the delinquent became extremely sick. 1816 E. WEETON Let. 22 May in Jrnl. of Governess (1969) II. 145 Large caravans enter the town with..wooden horses, whirligigs, gambling tables, barrel organs.
3. gen. and fig., in various applications: (a) Something that is continually whirling, or in constant movement or activity of any kind; (b) a fantastic notion, a crotchet (obs.); (c) circling course, revolution (of time or events); (d) a lively or irregular proceeding, an antic; (e) a circling movement, or condition figured as such, a whirl. 1601 SHAKES. Twel. N. V. i. 385 And thus the whirlegigge of time brings in his reuenges. 1654 GAYTON Pleas. Notes III. ii. 73 His braines..
being as vertiginous as a whirle-poole, presented ten thousand whirlygigs, Windmils, and Turne-pikes to his errantick soule. 1704 PRIOR Ladle 6 Since They [sc. the gods] gave Things their Beginning; And set this Whirligig a Spinning. 1796 F. BURNEY Camilla VII. xiii, You'll put my poor head quite into a whirligig.
When the present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May-month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbors say,
"He was a man who used to notice such things"?
--Thomas Hardy, "Afterwards"