If you are a frequent Twitter user, you have probably noticed the frequent use of the word welp—sometimes spelled well’p, wellp, or even, mistakenly, whelp—on the micro-blogging platform. Don’t let that last spelling confuse you: The slang term has nothing to do with “the young of various carnivorous mammals and especially of the dog,” to quote the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of whelp. The Twitter version of welp signifies the speaker’s reluctance or lack of enthusiasm for something that is finished or unchangeable; it is, roughly speaking, a linguistic shrug, which you might imagine as a combination of well and a gulp. A classic usage: “Welp: Every single hour of television watched after the age of 25 reduces the viewer’s life expectancy by 21.8 minutes.” Another: “Welp. My 6 month iPad 3 is now outdated. #firstandlast.” Or: “To Do: Math, Chp 4 AP Psych, Taft speech, terms sheet for English, then movies with my babe...probably will do none but the last. #welp.”
While the term seems to be understood by a sizable swath of the English-speaking population, its only apperance in a major dictionary is a brief mention in the Dictionary of American Regional English. So where did it come from? Many etymologically curious people have asked the question before—there’s even some consensus online that the term derives from a scene in the 1994 film Dumb and Dumber. At one point, Jim Carrey’s Lloyd walks out of a 7-Eleven and notices two men drinking Big Gulps, and says, “Hey guys! Oh, Big Gulps, huh? All right.” When the men respond with blank stares, Lloyd rebounds with, “Well, see you later!” That line is frequently written as “Welp, see you later,” though in the video below it sounds like well to our ears. (The line was reportedly improvised; the script does not contain dialogue for the scene.)
In any case, the use of welp in this fashion is far more than 18 years old. As the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower explained to Brow Beat, “welp” is only one iteration of a linguistic phenomenon known as the “excrescent p,” which results from the mouth’s physical formation of words:
An excrescent sound is one that is added for articulatory reasons, i.e. it’s a sound that your mouth makes when it’s en route to something else. The classic example of excrescent p is nope, where the p represents the closing of your lips at the end of uttering the word no.
Welp occurs when someone abruptly closes off the word well—an occurrence known as a bilabial stop, as linguist Ben Zimmer explained to me—and is akin to the similar slang words yep and nope.* That abrupt closure seems to enhance the sense of resignation in the word well when used as an interjection. Welp is a word to use, as one Urban Dictionary definition puts it, “When one feels there is no more to say.”
While Dumb and Dumber could have brought the usage to a wider audience, academic studies acknowledged the word as early as 1946. Dwight Bolinger addresses it that year in an essay for American Speech entitled “Thoughts on 'Yep' and 'Nope.'”
If the speaker is American, and will observe himself when he utters well as a sign of dismissal of some discussion or activity (as in ‘Well’—pause—‘what do we do next?’), he will often discover that he has used welp, with unfinished p. Like other actions, this gesture of finality may become a mannerism. At a recent graduation one of the officiating deans managed it conspicuously, on turning to go backstage, as from a job dutifully done, after having recited his list of candidates.
The word, then, has a much longer history than people might realize. And it is used more widely than people might realize, too: As Grant Barrett, co-host of the public radio show A Way With Words put it, “Give me an American who says well where all others say welp and I’ll reveal that person to be an offworld alien who has failed at fitting in. Probably a lonely alien, too. He’ll need to learn that word if he wants to abruptly start or finish uncomfortable topics, just like the natives.”
The term’s popularity on Twitter most likely derives from its utility in communicating “tone of voice” through social media, the linguistics PhD student Lauren Ackerman of Northwestern University told me: “Just like smiley faces, non-standard punctuation, capitals (i.e., shouting), etc. communicate tones of voice not explicitly encoded in writing, wellp give a reader a cue to how the word would have been pronounced.”
While people have been saying welp for some time, then—quite possibly without even realizing it—social media seems to have given it a more prominent place in written English. So will we be seeing this frequently hashtagged term in a dictionary any time soon? Lexicographer Sheidlower is at least cautiously optimistic. “It’s absolutely something that could go into a dictionary,” he says.
* This post originally misspelled the last name of linguist Ben Zimmer.