LOS ANGELES -- Next time you're called a wimp, you might consider running for office or becoming famous.

The word "wimp" has been linked in print with the likes of George Bush, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. Wimp also has described Prince Charles, Prince Edward, Shakespeare's Hamlet, the Columbia University football team and Joan Rivers.

These aren't just your chubby little duffs. They are among the world's headliners.

But in 1987 -- where Rambo still reigns and bimbos are making it big -- wimp has become a headline word.

The W-word has graced magazine covers from Life ("Charles the Bedeviled: Good Guy or Wimp?") to Newsweek ("George Bush: Fighting the 'Wimp Factor' "). It adorns awards given to the biggest wimps of the year. It appears in the pages of women's magazines, where articles accuse Today's Man of being a wimp.

"The word wimp has begun to specialize," says Robert L. Chapman, a word expert and editor of the New Dictionary of American Slang. "It used to mean more of an ineffectual person or a weak person, but now I think it has begun to take on a strong connotation of cowardly."

Wimp also has spawned new forms: Wimpy, wimpish, wimpdom, wimpism, wimplike, wimp out and wimpismo (you've heard of machismo?).

Deciding who is deserving of the description can result in anything but a wimpy debate. Wimp-watchers have definite opinions of wimp characteristics, though fine lines seem to exist between wimps and their close counterparts, "jerks," "nebbishes" and "wusses" (see glossary).

One person's wimp is not always another person's nerd.

"I'm not wimpy," says Bruce L. Chapman (no relation to Robert), "supreme archnerd" of the 7,000-member International Organization of Nerds, based in Cincinnati. Nerds fall into fashion, professional and attitudinal categories, but wimps are outcasts, Chapman says.

So if a wimp is not a nerd, is a wimp a geek? How about a goof? Maybe a ding-a-ling? Just what is a wimp?

"A wimp is someone who is afraid to stand up for what he really believes in and just goes with the flow, or refuses to take any chances," says syndicated TV and radio talk-show host Wally George of Sherman Oaks, Calif., who awarded "Wally George Wimp Awards" earlier this year.

His winners -- chosen, he says, because of their wimpy behavior -- included Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Sen. Ted Kennedy and comedian Joan Rivers. Rivers' award disputes the theory by some that women cannot be wimps because by nature women have weak, wimplike tendencies. (Some refer to female wimps as wimpettes.)

George says next year's winners might be Sen. Joseph Biden, Sen. Gary Hart and Jessica Hahn -- who publicly declared she was not a bimbo.

"A bimbo is not necessarily a wimp, but certainly well on the way to being a wimp," explains George, who has been called everything from obnoxious to a male chauvinist by outraged audiences, but never a wimp.

Wimps can be grouped into three classifications: wimps-by-appearance, wimps-by-character and wimps-in-contradiction.

Charles Atlas, the world-renowned body-builder, once was a wimp-by-appearance, as the story goes. He was a scrawny, 97-pound weakling who was picked on by bullies. So he decided to change his looks by lifting weights and turned his program into a successful mail-order business.

Voice is another telltale wimp sign in the appearance category. A weak, hesitant or soft voice is a giveaway -- sort of like Mr. Rogers of PBS' "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood."

"I can think of men who weren't attractive -- they were thin, fat, short, whatever -- but if they had a good voice, boy oh boy, could they charm the women," says Elizabeth Sabine, a North Hollywood voice teacher.

Character perhaps is the leading indicator of today's wimp. Cliff Claven on TV's "Cheers," middle-aged and living with his mother, seems incapable of setting out on his own. Woody Allen played a wimpy neurotic in his early films, a man who hesitated over every decision. Dr. Jack Morrison on TV's "St. Elsewhere" (played by David Morse) can't seem to stand up for what he feels.

Prince Edward, youngest son of Queen Elizabeth II, was tagged with the W-label in headlines around the world earlier this year when he resigned from the Royal Marines. And the characteristic may run in the family, suggests writer Anthony Holden in Life magazine, writing about Prince Charles: "It is this odd lack of self-confidence, together with his inability to check the occasional public giddiness of Diana and the other younger royals, that has led some critics to suggest that beneath the princely mien, there may lurk a wimp."

Wimps-in-contradiction are people who -- in a moment of weakness -- wimped out or gave up, but to whom the label normally would not apply.

Those in this category often are professional athletes. World welterweight boxing champion Roberto Duran was said to have acted like a wimp in 1980 when, in the eighth round against Sugar Ray Leonard, he threw up his hands and said he'd had enough. (The contradiction, of course, is that he got into the ring in the first place. He surrendered the title, however.)

A few teammates and fans thought Dodger outfielder Mike Marshall was a wimp as he sat out game after game this season with a variety of injuries and minor illnesses from warts to the flu.

And the term arguably could be applied to former Rams player Eric Dickerson, who wouldn't play unless he got a raise. (He got it and now is with the Indianapolis Colts.)

Wimp has even spread to fruit flies. A scientist, who researched insect control through sterilization of male flies, said female fruit flies don't want to mate with wimps.

But the W-word most often is associated with politics, where observers have coined the phrase Wimp Factor. If a candidate or politician exhibits any wimplike signs -- if he appears indecisive, hesitant or weak-looking or acting -- he suddenly is said to be fighting the Wimp Factor.

When Adlai Stevenson III lost the 1982 Illinois governor's race, some critics said the Wimp Factor was to blame. The Wimp Factor at one time confronted both former president Jimmy Carter and former vice president Walter Mondale.

And today's biggest battle against the Wimp Factor is being waged by Vice President and Republican presidential contender George Bush. People magazine came right out and asked in its annual readers poll: "Do you think George Bush is a wimp?"

Fifty-five percent of the respondents said no, while one-third did say Bush was "uncool," the magazine wrote.

"We debated about using that question," says People magazine senior editor Dick Lemon, "because it's a pretty bald question. But people were talking about the Wimp Factor with Bush."

A wimp acts wishy-washy, Lemon says. "But I'm not a wimpophile -- I'm not an expert."

Wrote Margaret Garrard Warner in Newsweek: "Yet Bush suffers from a potentially crippling handicap -- a perception that he isn't strong enough or tough enough for the challenges of the Oval Office. That he is, in a single mean word, a wimp."

But Bush is not a wimp, says Bob Naylor, California Republican party chairman, who remains neutral in the presidential race. "He's a very strong, insightful guy whose basic decency really comes through in person. It's a sad day if projecting basic decency is the same thing as being a wimp."

Nonetheless, the Wimp Factor has become an important ingredient in campaigns, some political analysts say.

"We're not going to make the president a wimp," says UCLA political-science professor John Petrocik, who studies public opinion in elections. "The voters' notion of leadership is very important. They don't want wimpy whiners ... If you're going to be in charge of the government and the power it represents, no wimps need apply."

No wimps need apply for jobs as modern men, some feminists say. The Wimp Factor has figured into male-female relationships. The much-loved Sensitive Man Alan Alda-type of the '70s has been recast as the wimp of the '80s.

"Now women are taking all the things we've said we wanted in a man -- concern, confidence, caring -- and calling it the Wimp Factor," says Sonya Friedman, a clinical psychologist and host of her own cable-TV talk show.

Sensitive men evolved into wimps when Rambo and other macho types became big, sociologists say.

"The '80s are a backlash to the '60s and '70s, in which people valued very highly qualities like sensitivity and concern for others," says Lucy Long, a faculty member of the Bowling Green State University Popular Culture Department.

Wimp is a term that is becoming as popular as Rambo, she says, because cultures tend to think in opposites.

This Wimp Factor theory, however, is almost more controversial than the political application. Some men decry what they say is a malicious labeling.

"The wimp thing is another creative way to punch a man down," says Sidney Siller, founder of the 4-year-old National Organization for Men's Rights and author of a men's-rights column in Penthouse magazine.

Women, on the other hand, have argued the Wimp Factor in publications such as Ms. magazine.

And more confusing yet is the notion that Rambos can be wimps in disguise.

"A lot of wimps are the big, blustery characters who are blustery because they aren't that mature inside," saysd Suzy Mallery, founder and president of Man Watchers, which has given awards for the last 12 years to the most watchable men in America. Of course, "a wimp wouldn't win," Mallery says.

If the Wimp Factor can wipe out politicians -- or at least impair their careers -- could it also wipe out wimps of men?

Michael Messner, a sociology professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Men in Society at USC, fears a wimp might try to overcome the image by acting tougher. Imagine "Have a nice day" never being heard again.

"He might act like he doesn't care about other people -- that's the worst part of this whole thing," Messner says.

But even worse, worse than if someone made a movie called "Attack of the Killer Wimps," worse than even a more serious acceptance of the word wimp, are the hurt feelings of those who get called a wimp.

"George Bush thinks he's got it bad," Messner says, "but just think about a seventh-grader."