Brow Beat is excited that Arsenio Hall is coming back—and we’re not the only ones. Consider the Associated Press headline from earlier today: “Woot! Arsenio Hall returning to late-night TV”—a nod, of course, to the raucous audiences who enjoyed his previous late-night series, The Arsenio Hall Show, and were known for pumping their fists in the air to cries of “woot woot woot.”
Except the audience didn’t cry “woot.” They barked “woof.”
While the “woo- woo- woo-ing” you’ll hear in the many clips from the show on YouTube can sound like both a “woot” and a “woof” (I hear “woot” myself), one needn’t look far for explanations of the canine-inspired cheer. “Fans spend hours waiting for a chance to wave their fists in the air (“Arseniooooo!”) and bark like dogs (“woof! woof! woof! woof!”) on national TV,” the San Francisco Chronicle explained in 1989. An early report from the same year in Canada’s Globe and Mail (not available online) explains the origin of the woofing: “The portion of the audience stuck behind the band even has a pet name—The Dog Pound—and its members practice barking whenever Arsenio acknowledges them.” (If you can find decisive video evidence of a “woof,” please share it in the comments.)
The AP’s confusion is understandable, though. A lot of one-syllable shouts beginning with a “woo” sound appeared in pop music following its use on the show. Take the song “Whoot There It Is,” released by the band 95 South in March 1993—not to be confused with Tag Team’s “Whoomp! (There It Is),” which came out about a month later. Both songs made the Billboard Hot 100. At the time, the two cries became common enough to warrant a “Whoot” versus “Whoomp” story in the Chicago Tribune. The “Whoomp,” the article says, can be traced to an Atlanta DJ’s take on the Arsenio Hall bark.
Such overlapping “woo” sounds have been with us for some time. The Oxford English Dictionary and other sources trace whoop—as both a verb meaning “to call out” and a noun referring to a cry or shout—to roughly the 15th century. Whoot, meanwhile, was probably adapted from the verb form of “hoot,” defined by the OED as “to shout, call out or make an inarticulate vocal noise,” with origins as far back as the 13th century, an echo, perhaps, of owl calls.
And woo confusion isn’t limited to Arsenio Hall Show observers. If you listen carefully, the chorus of the 2000 hit “Who Let the Dogs Out” by the Baha Men is clearly “who who who who,” as in, who did let those dogs out? But many websites and videos write the line “woof woof woof woof,” as though the chorus consisted of the barking of the now-loose dogs.
These days, “whoot” has likely surpassed both “woof” and “whoop” as a celebratory cheer. In 2007, “w00t,” a common expression for happiness in Internet parlance, was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year. The term, according to that dictionary, originated with computer gamers as an abbreviation for “We Owned the Other Team.”*
* Ben Zimmer, excecutive producer of Visual Thesaurus (and Slate contributor), tells Brow Beat that Merriam-Webster is wrong to describe "w00t" as the result of an acronym, and points us to an informative history of the term by Grant Barrett.