A History of the Word Oops

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Nov. 10 2011 6:07 PM

Oops: A History

When did we come up with a word for making mistakes?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a debate hosted by CNBC and the Michigan Republican Party at Oakland University on November 9, 2011 in Rochester, Michigan.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a debate hosted by CNBC and the Michigan Republican Party Nov. 9 in Michigan

Scott Olson

During the Republican debate Wednesday night, Rick Perry began to explain that there are three government agencies he hopes to eliminate. Unable to name the third agency, the candidate simply said, “Oops.” When did people start saying oops?

Around the 1930s. The first known appearance of oops in print comes from a 1922 Washington Post  caption, apparently for a cartoon, but it’s unclear whether the exclamation carries the same meaning it does today: “Efery dog has his day, says der poet—und der same iss for goats!... Oops!” As an expression of apology or surprise at a blunder, oops begins to appear more often in the 1930s. In Dorothy Parker’s short story collection Here Lies, there are not one but two oopses. In the collection’s “Lady With a Lamp,” a character interjects, “oops—I’m sorry I joggled the bed,” while in “The Little Hours," another character exclaims, “oops … I’ve got to watch myself.” Whoops, in the sense of oops, began appearing around the same time and can be found repeatedly in issues of Popular Science and Boys’ Life, where it was printed as early as 1929. By 1937, “Whoops!” was exclaimed in a letter by nobody less than Ezra Pound. It’s unclear whether Britney Spears’s 2000 single “Oops! ... I Did It Again” has increased the popularity of the expression in recent years.

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The Oxford English Dictionary mentions that oops is “perhaps a natural exclamation,” but some of its first appearances suggest that, along with whoops, it might derive from the phrase up-a-daisy. Up-a-daisy has been used as an utterance of nonsensical encouragement for children since the 18th century, especially upon lifting them into the air or coaxing them back on their feet after a tumble. Its first known appearance in print comes in the letters of Jonathan Swift, as “up-a-dazy,” in 1711. Over the course of the 19th century, it evolved into upsidaisy. Many of the earliest appearances of oops! and whoops! show up in the context of accidental slips and falls, suggesting that they may be related to up-a-daisy. (The prostitute in 1922’s Ulysses says “Hoopsa!” when Leopold Bloom trips walking up the stairs.)

Many other languages have similar expressions. An Italian found in error might say, “ops!” while a Frenchman who’s made a faux pas might say, “oups!” In Spanish, one can say opa, but just as common are huy and ¡ay! A Russian who’s made a goof might exclaim, “ой” (pronounced oj), while a German blunderer might blurt out, “hoppla!”

The first appearance of oops as a noun (meaning an occasion on which one would say “oops”) seems to be from 1938. The passage, found in Alexander Alland’s The Artistic Animal, describes four apparently seasick vomiters in the toilet: “At every rising wave, oops … In the trough a dozen oopses.”

Explainer thanks Ben Zimmer of the Visual Thesaurus.

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Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer.