WTF Is Older and More Flexible Than You Think

Lexicon Valley
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Sept. 18 2013 3:11 PM

WTF Is Older and More Flexible Than You Think   

WTF

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

Anyone who has encountered WTF in the wild probably knows that its primary meaning is "what the fuck," but the W can also stand for various other question words. When I started trawling through early examples in the archive of Usenet newsgroups, I was surprised to discover that this inherent ambiguity has been present in WTF all along, since its first popularization in the mid- to late 1980s. Here are the earliest examples I've found for the different possible expansions:

WTF = "what the fuck"
May 18, 1985. "Ramblings 5/85" net.micro.mac. "I asked myself, 'W.T.F.?'"

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WTF = "why the fuck"
May 26, 1985. "Proline C preliminary review" net.micro.cbm. "WTF do I need a C primer if I am buying the compiler for the language?"

WTF = "where the fuck"
Aug. 28, 1988.  "sgipie.ps (file 2 of 5)" comp.windows.news. "wtf did all that junk on the stack come from?"

WTF = "whatever the fuck"
March 15, 1990. "Ageism, Lookism, straightism, Eeekism[tm]" soc.motss. "i don't believe the 'gay community' (wtf that is…) has formal input in this process."

WTF = "who the fuck"
Nov. 28, 1990. Jargon File, Version 2.1.5. "WTF: The universal interrogative particle. WTF knows what it means?"

The last example from the Jargon File is wonderfully self-referential, forcing the reader into the who interpretation and thereby illustrating how you can only know what the abbreviation means by judging the surrounding context. Absent from these early examples (at least the ones I could glean from Google's not terribly reliable Usenet archive) is WTF with an expansion of "when the fuck," but rest assured, that's attested in later sources:

May 26, 2002. "More ELF buggery…" bugtraq mailing list. "cathy, wtf are you coming over for beer?"

May 15, 2004. "Comment on *Fangfingers's profile" deviantART. "DAMN, man! Wtf are you gonna FIX that thing!!"

By the early '90s, the abbreviation had become so entrenched in online lingo that it also came to be used as a noun with various meanings:

March 30, 1990. "One hell of a screwwed up article" rec. humor. "This may have been funny had it required a bit less translation from WTF to english."

Oct. 12, 1991. "Devil bunnies! I snort the nose,Lucifer!" alt.fan.monty-python. "All I get is a couple nominations for a Rory and a WTF!"

And then it began to be used attributively:

Feb. 1, 1994. "sendmail: how is | (pipe) supported?" alt.fan.warlord. "I'm glad that barphic is clearly labelled, otherwise this would be a WTF? post."

The attributive usage took off especially in the expression "WTF moment." Also, just to cover my bases, I'll note that WTF spelled backward is FTW, a popular online abbreviation standing for "for the win." Fittingly, FTW is quite the opposite reaction to WTF. And if you want to know the history of another expansion of FTW, namely "fuck the world," check out the third edition of Jesse Sheidlower's The F-Word, a comprehensive study of the F-bomb in both its full and abbreviated forms.

A version of this post originally appeared on Language Log.

Ben Zimmer is the executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus, and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

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