Whoa not Woah! Or is it?

whoa or woah?

Recently, I’ve seen the word “whoa” written as “woah” or even “whoah” several times. A little research shows that many people are confused over a word that is as natural to us as breathing. In fact, whoa is quite an ancient word and the spelling that’s developed may have to do with where you live.

I’ve always loved etymology (the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.). It was something my grandfather loved to investigate. In fact, he had an Oxford English Dictionary in his study and we would frequently look up words together.

So here’s a round up of what I’ve learned about whoa.

According to Wiktionary,

Whoa (c. 1843) is a variant of woa (c. 1840), itself a variant of wo (c. 1787), from who (c. 1450), ultimately from Middle English ho, hoo (interjection), probably from Old Norse hó! (interjection, also, a shepherd’s call). Compare German ho, Old French ho ! (hold!, halt!).

Dictionary.com says whoa was first recorded in 1615–25.

And “Brian” on the Internet, wrote this (without sources but consistent with what I’ve read)

Actually, “Whoa” and “Woah” are separated in common usage only by about a decade, and both have been commonly used since the middle 1800s. Both are variants of “woa”, around since the 1840s. “Woa” itself is a variant of “Wo” from the late 1700s, deriving from the interjection (not pronoun) “Who”, which has been around since the middle 1400s. “Whoa” predates “Woah” by about ten years. But, (perhaps) interestingly, it depends on which English speaking country you live in as to which is considered “standard”. “Woah” is the favored spelling in the UK, while both spellings are in common use in the US. Both are correct, so use whichever you like. Or, if you want to get REALLY “correct” (and by that I mean ridiculously anal retentive), just go back to “Wo”. Apparently that’s when the “dumbing down” started.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, which quotes the Oxford English Dictionary (probably the most definitive source),

The earliest spelling of the sound in English is “ho,” and traces to about 1374, the Oxford English Dictionary says. It’s also been spelled “whoo,” “who,” whoe, “whoh,” “wogh,” “woa,” etc. The “whoa” spelling first showed up around 1467, the OED says, though the verb form wasn’t recorded until about 1840.

Looking at usage of whoa vs. woah on the Internet, you can see that the trending toward woah is recent — although that could just be fueled by memes and texting. The website http://www.fivethirtyeight.com is a website focuses on opinion poll analysis, politics, economics, and also created “interactives” that graph the data they discover. Here’s their tracking analysis on Whoa vs. Woah.

Whoa vs woah
To get a sense of the language used on Reddit, FiveThirtyEight parsed every comment since late 2007 and built the tool above, which enables you to search for a word or phrase to see how its popularity has changed over time. We’ve updated the tool to include all comments through the end of July 2017.

The Wall Street Journal also reports an uptick in the use of woah among younger people, who say only “old folks” use whoa.

Since 2014, woah has more than tripled in online news stories, and it now makes up about 30% of total usage, up from 19% at that time, according to the News on the Web corpus, a database containing 8.4 billion words published in online news stories. On Google Trends, which tracks the frequency of search engine terms, woah has been the more dominant term in basic Web and YouTube searches for two years.

So, are you #teamwhoa? or #teamwoah? And where in the world do you live? I’m firmly in the Whoa category myself.

9 thoughts on “Whoa not Woah! Or is it?

  1. Whoa, hold the phone. Woah sounds dumb. It’s whoa. And isn’t it interesting, but it seems, to me, to be innate..I say “whoa” for not just horses, but to people, as well. I even say it to dogs. But I do remember when I worked at at QH breeding farm, the owners said “Ho”, not whoa.
    There was something not too related, I just read, just recently and of course, cannot remember the source, but…the exclamation ‘huh?’ …the word one uses as a question, is used in every language. The same word, the same usage, the same context.

  2. Omg this has been bothering me! Thanks for doing the research. I’m firmly in camp whoa. Woah seems like it’d be two syllables. I’m from East Coast US.

  3. When I lived in Michigan, it was definitely pronounced “ho”. These days, there’s an entirely different connotation to ‘ho’…
    here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s Whoa.

  4. As an addition to this thread…Liz, you might be interested in a very good book titled “Written in Stone” by Christopher Stevens. (ISBN 978-1-60598-907-5) I add the ISBN because I have TWO books with the exact same title, the other is about fossils, (another interest of mine). “Written in Stone” examines the origin of language clear back, in some words, to PIE or even earlier. It’s a dictionary, in a way, showing words we use every day came to be what they are today. For instance, ‘ekwos’ was Proto-Indo European for horse…which led to equus, the Latin and we all know what Equus means!

  5. Whoa all the way. I used to get really upset about Woah. Then I started researched (like you). Now I’m only mildly irritated that both are TECHNICALLY correct. Ugh!

  6. I grew up with whoa. [Colorado, 60s, 70s] I first encountered ‘woah’ as the cry of Snowy the little white dog in the TinTin graphic novels!! So, to me, woah is not new; it’s just different. It’s more ‘woe’ than ‘whoa.’ It has more of an old-fashioned continental European feel for me, which I now realize is due to TinTin. (Does this even make sense?!) I wonder if this European flavor is what is so attractive to newer users.

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