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See also: wig-wag


Alternative forms[edit]


An ambulance in England, UK, with a wigwag (noun sense 2.1.2) installed. This causes lights next to its front headlamps to flash alternately.
A wigwag signal (noun sense 2.1.3) at a level crossing in Mnichovice, Czech Republic. When a train is passing, the two upper red lamps flash alternately to warn vehicular traffic to stop. Once the train has passed, the lower green lamp lights up to signal that vehicles can drive across the tracks.
A wigwag (noun sense 2.3) inside the cabin of a truck, which indicates when the pressure in the airbrake system of the truck is too low for the brakes to be reliably deployed
A round, black-and-white railway wigwag signal (noun sense 2.4) at Ashland, Oregon, USA. In addition to its swinging motion, this wigwag also has a flashing light and a bell to indicate that a train is approaching the grade crossing.

wig (to wag, waggle) + wag (to swing from side to side). The noun is derived from the verb.



wigwag (plural wigwags)

  1. An act of wigwagging.
    • 1871, George Gill, “Letter Exercises”, in The Illustrated Series of Technical Reading Books. First Standard (Gill's School Series), Liverpool: The Educational Trading Co., Limited, 9 & 10, St. Bride's Avenue; Fleet Street, E.C.; Simpkin, Marshall & Co.; George Philip & Son [et al.], OCLC 315283756, page 14:
      We saw the daw get on the back of the sow. The tail of the sow went wig, wag, wig, wag, and all the daw did was Caw, caw, caw, caw.
    • 1872, Charles T[hurber] Miller, Frog Opera, with Pollywog Chorus. A Burletta Founded upon the Nursery Tale and Old Song of A Frog He Would a Wooing Go, Boston, Mass.: Alfred Mudge & Son, printers, No. 34 School Street, OCLC 950933805, Act I, page 6:
      Beautiful tails, O, beautiful tails, / Thy gentle wigwag is joyous and queer; / How to our hearts thy switchery tells / Tails of the past ever dear.
  2. Any of a number of mechanical or electrical devices which cause a component to oscillate between two states.
    • 1968, Jen-Hu Chang, “Introduction”, in Climate and Agriculture: An Ecological Survey, Chicago, Ill.: Aldine Pub. Co., OCLC 559649; republished New Brunswick, N.J.: Aldine Transaction, Transaction Publishers, 2009, →ISBN, page 7:
      The wig-wag [an instrument measuring solar radiation] utilizes the principle that the gaseous phase of a volatile liquid expands as a result of the conversion of radiant energy to sensible heat. It requires only a reading of the count at whatever interval the observer chooses.
    • 2007, M. David Chambers, “Beaversovin & the Lifetime Guarantee”, in The Best is Yet to Come, Indianapolis, Ind.: Dog Ear Publishing, →ISBN, page 9:
      The most common failure on the older models [of washing machines] was a $12 part called a "wig-wag" – that's right, a "wig-wag" – it was a simple part that kept the washer washing and could be replaced in five minutes or less.
    1. A device that causes one or more lights to flash in a preset pattern.
      • 2011 August, C[harles] J[ames] Box[, Jr.], chapter 21, in Back of Beyond, New York, N.Y.: Minotaur Books, St. Martin's Press, →ISBN, page 209:
        Framed by the pulsing wig-wag lights the painted the stone walls and arched windows of the front of the Gallatin Gateway Inn in vivid reds and blues, Cody Hoyt tossed the duffel he'd saved into the back of his Ford.
      1. (film, television) A red light near the door of a sound stage that flashes to indicate that cameras are rolling inside the stage and that all people and vehicles outside should remain quiet; a red-eye.
        • 1943 March, Robert Leslie Bellem, “Russian Run-around”, in Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective, Wilmington, Del.: Culture Publications, OCLC 51999162; republished as Russian Run-around, [Prineville, Or.]: eStar Books, 2014, →ISBN:
          I parked near a big sound stage building; lamped a red wig-wag signal rocking back and forth to indicate a scene being shot inside. This meant no admittance until the cameras had stopped grinding. Presently a bell jingled and the wig-wag died.
        • [2002, Michael G. Uva; Sabrina Uva, “WIG-WAG”, in Uva’s Basic Grip Book, updated edition, Boston, Mass.: Focal Press, →ISBN:
          WIG-WAG The red flashing light outside of a stage indicating that filming is going on.]
      2. (road transport) A device used to cause lamps installed on a motor vehicle, especially an emergency vehicle such as an ambulance or police car, to flash as a warning.
        • 2009, Alafair Burke, City of Fear, London: Avon, →ISBN:
          Rogan hit the wigwag flashers on the headlights of the Crown Vic and made it to the circular driveway at the Sixth Avenue entrance of the Hilton in four minutes flat.
        • 2009, Dick Lehr, The Fence: A Police Cover-up Along Boston’s Racial Divide, Pymble, N.S.W.; New York, N.Y.: HarperCollins, →ISBN, page 10:
          But it was equipped with a siren; blue lights concealed in the front grille; wig-wag, or blinking lights, in the rear; and a blue light on the front dashboard.
        • 2013 March, Dan Schultz, Dead Run: The Murder of a Lawman and the Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West, New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, →ISBN, page 28:
          [] Claxton flipped on the flashing red and blue wigwag lights on his patrol car's front bumper. [] And the truck, apparently responding to the flashing wigwag lights, edged farther off the pavement onto the shoulder and stopped; properly, cooperatively, deceptively.
      3. (road transport) A device with multiple (often two), alternately flashing lights which is installed at a railway level crossing (or grade crossing), a movable bridge, etc., to warn vehicular traffic to stop.
        • 1935 September 25, W[alter] Nash (Hutt), “[House of Representatives.] Adjournment: Questions”, in New Zealand. Parliamentary Debates. Fifth Session, Twenty-fourth Parliament. Legislative Council and House of Representatives. [...] Comprising the Period from August 29 to September 26, 1935, volume 242, Wellington: By authority; G. H. Loney, Government Printer, OCLC 248552646, page 625:
          Travelling home about half past ten o'clock on a recent night he had seen a motor-car which had been driven into the cattle-stop on the railway-line. It was a bad night from a visibility point of view, and the wig-wag was not operating, as no train was in sight. However, before the motor-car was extricated a train passed within three inches of it.
        • 2002, Ian [Victor] Hansen, “The First Problem”, in The Naked Fish: An Autobiography of Belief, Kent Town, South Australia: Wakefield Press, →ISBN, page 1:
          The Seacliff train pulled out of Brighton station and gathered speed as it approached the level crossing with its wig-wag signal warning signal ringing out. Then the train's whistle blew deperately because, standing alone at the crossing, was a boy aged about three and a half. The little boy was I, was me, and I was engulfed by the noise and enthralled by the train's power.
    2. (horology) An instrument that creates a wigwagging motion for polishing.
      • 1894, Henry G. Abbott, “WIGWAG”, in Abbott’s American Watchmaker and Jeweler. An Encyclopedia for the Horologist, Jeweler, Gold and Silversmith, Containing [] Receipts and Formulas Compiled from the Best and Most Reliable Sources. Complete Directions for Using All the Latest Tools, Attachments and Devices for Watchmakers and Jewelers, Chicago, Ill.: G. K. Hazlitt & Co., OCLC 33117876; republished as Abbott’s American Watchmaker: An Encyclopedia for the Horologist, Jeweler, Gold and Silversmith, New York, N.Y.: Skyhorse Publishing, 2012, →ISBN, page 344:
        The wigwag is used for polishing the shoulders of pinions, pinion leaves, staffs and pivots, and for numerous other operations. [] These tools are used extensively in all the American watch factories.
    3. (road transport) A warning device inside the cabin of a truck that causes a mechanical arm to drop into view when the pressure in the airbrake system of the truck becomes too low for the brakes to be reliably deployed.
      • 2010, Mike Byrnes and Associates, “Air Brakes”, in Barron’s CDL: Commercial Driver’s License Truck Driver’s Test, 3rd edition, Hauppauge, N.Y.: Barron's Educational Series, →ISBN, part 2, page 230, column 2:
        Some vehicles with air brakes also use a wigwag low pressure indicator. This is mounted above the windshield. If the air pressure drops below 60 psi, the signal arm will drop down across the windshield. You can't reset it (push it back out of view) until air pressure is brought above 60 psi. Don't operate the vehicle with the signal arm lever down.
    4. (US, rail transport, dated) A grade crossing signal with a swinging motion used to indicate an approaching train.
      • 2003, Brian Solomon, “Grade Crossing Signals”, in Railroad Signaling, St. Paul, Minn.: Voyageur Press, →ISBN, page 147, column 1:
        One of the first standard types of automated visual grade-crossing warning was the automated flagman, a signal commonly known as a "wigwag." According to Santa Fe documents, the wigwag was adopted as a standard crossing device by the American Railway Association in 1923. A standard wigwag is actuated by a track circuit and consists of a paddle with a red lamp that gracefully swings back and forth in a horizontal pattern when a train approaches. A wigwag is usually accompanied by a bell.
  3. (US, military, historical) A signal sent by waving a flag to and fro.
    • 1932 August, Hubert E. Mishler, “Tiny Wigwag Machine Teaches Signaling with Flag”, in Raymond J. Brown, editor, Popular Science Monthly, volume 121, number 2, New York, N.Y.: Popular Science Publishing Co., OCLC 42298723, page 71:
      Boy Scouts and others interested in visual signaling can practice indoors with this miniature wigwag sender.


wigwag (third-person singular simple present wigwags, present participle wigwagging, simple past and past participle wigwagged)

  1. To move gently in one direction and then another; to wig or wiggle, to wag or waggle.
    • 1874, Abby Morton Diaz, “Letter XIX. Lucy Maria’s Answer to Maggie.”, in Lucy Maria, Boston, Mass.: James R. Osgood and Company, (late Ticknor & Fields, and Fields, Osgood, & Co., OCLC 6126016, page 132:
      I wish people were less bound by custom in small matters,—like taking off hats, observing certain forms, and following certain fashions. It is ridiculous that the whole tribe must all do alike, or perish! Simon says up; Simon says down; Simon says wigwag; all wigwag! But not without Simon says so, or there'll be a forfeit. It is very well to play a play once in a while; but as for making life one everlasting game of wigwag, I don't believe in it.
    • 1912 November, Arthur Stanley Riggs, “Addio, Sicilia!”, in Vistas in Sicily, New York, N.Y.: McBridge, Nast & Company, OCLC 609520293, page 250:
      "It is the Festa della Madonna dei Capri—the Feast of Our Lady of the Goats. We have it every single year. Everybody is out!" [] The goats, fairly strutting with pride, however, are the most ludicrous members of these amazing cavalcades, for they have bouquets attached with wire and toothpicks to twisted horns and even to their sub-tails, which wigwag signals as they bob along with arched necks.
    • 1999, Edward Wenk, Jr., “Survival—to be Alive and Free”, in The Double Helix: Technology and Democracy in the American Future, Stamford, Conn.: Ablex Publishing Corporation, →ISBN, page 95:
      Environmental and health risks wigwagged by Rachel Carson and Jacques-Yves Cousteau led to the National Environmental Policy Act.
    • 2015, Bertil Dunér, chapter 5, in Little Counsellor, Kibworth Beauchamp, Leicestershire: Matador, →ISBN, page 28:
      On the podium a goalkeeper was moving back and forth, sideways, in front of the full-scribbled goal behind him, uneasily wagging his hands to and fro, wigwagging.
  2. To oscillate between two states.
    • 2011, Stephen J[oseph] Cannell, Vigilante (A Shane Scully Novel; 11), New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, →ISBN:
      Then the headlights swept around the last bend in the track and the train was bearing down on us from less than a block away. The engineer saw us and started leaning on the horn. He was going way too fast. The train whistle kept blaring as the white headlamp on the lead car wigwagged back and forth, strobing the car as the train thundered toward us.
  3. (US, military, historical) To send a signal by waving a flag to and fro.
    • 1988, James A[lbert] Michener, “The Railbelt”, in Alaska: A Novel, New York, N.Y.: Random House, →ISBN; republished New York, N.Y.: Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, 2014, →ISBN, page 905:
      He had no prearranged signals for explaining the presence of the two Americans, but when the planes returned to check his messages, he wigwagged: "No Japanese. No signs," and then led Krickel and his daughter to where they could be clearly seen. The lead plane dipped its wings alterately and flew back toward Dutch Harbor.
    • 2007, Nelson A. Reed, “April 15, 1866: The Mississippi”, in With Your Shield Shining: A Novel of the Second Civil War 1863–1866, Lincoln, Neb.: iUniverse, →ISBN:
      The steam whistle emitted three long blasts as the Carondelet headed into the stream, along with the echoing of sound from the signal cannon. As they passed each of the troop ships, a mighty cheer rose from the men. [General William Tecumseh] Sherman had a signalman wigwag a message of good luck and Godspeed to each.


Derived terms[edit]

See also[edit]


wigwag (not comparable)

  1. With a wigwagging or to-and-fro motion.

Further reading[edit]