Woah! Why Are You Spelling It That Way?

Language and how we use it.
Dec. 29 2013 11:55 PM

Whoa! Woah?! Whoah.

How an old exclamation became the Internet’s most variously spelled word.

131230_LIFE_Whoa

Design by Derreck Johnson/Slate

This past summer, the Today show used its Twitter account to share some news about the birth of an unusually heavy child. Along with a link to its story about the immense infant, Today included for its more than 2 million followers this brief note: “Woah baby! 13-lb. 7-oz. baby delivered in Spain.”

It was a typical Today show tweet—punchy, conversational, vanilla—but it caught the eye of New York magazine senior editor Dan Amira. Unmoved by word of a gigantic newborn, Amira—who recently left New York magazine for a job at The Daily Show—focused on something smaller (much smaller): the placement of an “h.” In retweeting the message, Amira affixed a brief, pointed comment: “It’s ‘whoa.’

He drove home the same point a week later when @HuffPostEdu tweeted a link accompanied by the sentence, “Whoah: Professors get bulletproof whiteboards.” Political reporter Chris Cillizza heard from Amira when he decided to go with “WHOAH” in a tweet about the unusually early availability of pumpkin spice latte this year, and Time’s Zeke Miller got called out by Amira on two different occasions during four weeks of whoa tweets. Although he had moved on to other topics by September, Amira’s half-prescriptivist, half-hilarious crusade shone light on a notable fact about 2013: It was the year of everybody spelling “whoa” a zillion different ways.

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Without question, this has been an especially whoa-full year. But why? “Whoa” is hardly a new word; it dates back to at least the early 17th century. At that time it was used mostly in shouted form and was intended to garner the attention of someone in the distance. Around the the mid-1800s, people began using “whoa” to halt forward-moving horses, and by the latter half of the 20th century it had morphed into an expression for conveying alarm, surprise, or advanced interest. (Messrs. Bill and Ted solidified the strength of this usage in 1989, Joey Lawrence sealed the deal during the ’90s, and Keanu Reeves reappeared without Bill S. Preston, Esq. to help usher the word into the new millennium via The Matrix.)

The expression is now exceedingly common, and in 2013 the continuing ascension of its usage overlapped with the advancing popularity of social media to create an unstoppable force of media momentum. With so many people using the word on Facebook, Twitter, and other networks that drive Web traffic these days, it appears as though editors and writers this year felt they had little choice but to join the parade. By using “whoa” in headlines, as the opening word of published articles, and pretty much everywhere else online, they seemed to be hoping that readers would see it and think: “Hey, what comes next must be really exciting, because there’s that same ‘whoa!’ all my friends use on Twitter when interesting and important things happen.” But people were so busy writing that there was no time, apparently, to agree on how we all should be spelling it.

Merriam-Webster, a host of style guides, 238 likers of the Facebook page “It’s ‘Whoa’ not ‘Woah,’ ” and rapper Earl Sweatshirt all support Amira’s take on the proper and preferred contemporary spelling of “whoa.” But don’t tell that to hundreds and hundreds of headline writers who worked on articles published in 2013. In January, for instance, the Daily Mirror ran a story online titled “Woah! Rochelle Wiseman’s Baby Bump Pops Up Out of Nowhere.” Wonkette posted a story and video accompanied by “Woah: Fox & Friends Nearly (Accidentally?) Practiced a Tiny Smidgen of Journalism.” (As if to prove that “woah” headlines transcend all party lines and political ideologies, Glenn Beck’s the Blaze, in late autumn, trotted out “Woah: America’s Youngest Voters Have Turned on Obama in a Big Way.”) Just a few weeks ago, the Apple news website Cult of Mac ran with “Woah! Check Out the Beautiful Curved Front at Apple’s Refurbished Stonestown Store.”

There are scores of similar headlines where those came from. (Not to mention the extensive body-copy, sentence-level usage of “woah” that occurred online this year among the approximately 5,220,000 hits that result from a Google search on that spelling of the word.) And we can’t forget the spelling and grammar free-for-all that is the blogosphere, or the slapdash sentences that show up on message boards, or the legions of Craigslist posters who used “woah” to jazz up apartment listings during this calendar year. For those looking to own some “woah” in 2013, there was tons of woah-emblazoned Zazzle junk for sale, and a marijuana leaf–pattern “Woah Dude 2.0” dress is available right now on Amazon for $26.

But where “woah” with the “h” at the end really blew up this year was on social media. Typing the hashtag “#woah” into the search box on Twitter at any given moment results in something on the order of 50 tweets an hour. Remove the number sign from the front of “woah” and the result is more like 50 tweets a minute. (“Woah he got pushed,” “Woah, where did my highlighter go?” and “WOAH! Heat wave! 34 degrees!” just scrolled by on my computer screen.) Even putting aside Twitter, there were thousands of Instagram and Vine and Tumblr posts tagged with “woah” in 2013.

And if you were thinking you could perhaps quarantine yourself so as to preclude exposure to the Today show–style “woah” by avoiding all forms of social media and, say, spending some time relaxing in front of the TV, think again. This month, the History channel began airing an episode of its popular series Pawn Stars under the title, “Woah Pilgrim.”

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