Monday, April 20, 2009

whoa and woah

If there is one arena in which Better Half is not my better, it's spelling. It's not that he's a particularly bad speller, it's just that I like to think of myself as a particularly good one. So, at least a couple of years ago, I rolled my eyes and corrected him when he wrote an interjection meaning 'stop, wait!' as woah! That I can remember correcting BH some years later is indicative of the sadness of my life and my need to always be right, which is pretty hard to be if you're me. I suppose I was reliving 'times I've been right and BH has been wrong' because of another instance of my absolute disability when it comes to accents. I spent some time the other day insisting that a food critic on the television was French, when, in fact, he's Irish. He only dresses French. So, I cling to my 'being right' memories with the tenacity of a starving octopus.

Then I read an article in The Guardian's review section (which I now can't find, so here's a link to an earlier article in the Guardian--by the outgoing poet laureate, no less) that contained a woah. As has been mentioned here before, The Guardian (or The Grauniad) has something of a reputation for bad spelling and typographical errors, so I remarked to myself that BrE writers seem to have a hard time spelling whoa.

Then I was in an English airport and I saw an ad(vert) (I wish I'd taken a photo, but I was too airport-grumpy at the time to think of it--it might've been for Phones4You), that shouted WOAH! WOAH! WOAH! in red and white. At that point, I had to start planning my admission of wrongness to BH.

(I'm sure many halves of long-standing and happy couples are thinking that I did not have to admit that I was wrong. Since BH neither saw the ad(vert) nor remembered the time I corrected him, what was to be gained by interfering with the well-developed roles of She Who Is Right and He Who Must Be Corrected? But, you see, I had to admit I'd been wrong because I have in the past claimed that admitting-when-I'm-wrong is something that I am happy to do, and so in order to prove myself right I have to prove myself wrong--on a regular basis.)

So, my story of whoa (and woah):

The OED lists woah as a variant of woa which is a variant of whoa, which is a variant of the interjection who (not to be confused with the pronoun who--the interjection is pronounced as wo--which is also a variant of all these), which came into the language as a variant of ho! Here are the dates of the OED's quotations for these spellings of the pronunciation /wo/ when it means 'stop!':


who c.1450-1859
wo 1787-1894
woa 1840-1892
woah 1856 (one example--included under the headword woa)
whoa 1843-1898 (but, of course, we know it's still used)
It's interesting that the OED lists woa as a variant of whoa when it has earlier evidence for woa--it implies that whoa is the more standard form. We shouldn't read much into the lack of recent examples of any of these--it looks like nothing has been added to these entries since the first edition.

I don't remember ever seeing the woah spelling (I'd want to pronounce it as two syllables: wo-ah, like Noah) before moving to England, but it's a very popular spelling here. Searching just UK sites, one gets ~170,000 hits for woah and ~255,000 for whoa. Searching some American sites, one gets 33 woahs to 461 whoas on .mil and 8,800 to 39,000 on .edu (the first woahs that came up on the .edu search were quoted from a BBC site, though). Or, if you'd like to see some bar graphs showing US and UK usage of the spellings, try this.

(Can you believe I started this post on the 6th of April? Alas and alack--I wish I had a solid month to do nothing but catch up on this blog.)

45 comments:

Gordon P. Hemsley said...

Interestingly, I spell it "woah" and am actually bugged by the "whoa" spelling. And I'm a speaker of American English.

mollymooly said...

I maintain the distinction between WH /hw/ and W /w/ ("which" /hwItS/ does not sound like "witch" /wItS/). However, I use the "whoa" spelling, even though I pronounce it "woe" /woU/. Has anybody ever pronounced "whoa" as /hwoU/?

Rick S said...

Molly, I can't help wondering whether the "whoa" spelling (from earlier "woah") came about because of aspirating the /w/ in tense situations. I think it's quite common for this interjection to be uttered in hasty excitement, with the aspiration a result of hurried expulsion of air as one begins shouting. In such situations, it's quite possible the "w" could come out sounding like /hw/, and then the spelling could have been adapted to fit the sound.

John Cowan said...

The trick is, rather than cultivating the desire to be right, to cultivate the desire to become right and remain so. That way, when you find out that you were wrong, instead of being crushed, you are elated because you were wrong but have now become right. And because you're elated, you then rush off to tell your nearest and dearest that whereas previously you were wrong, you are now right, and isn't that amazing? And of course that totally overrides any recollection of how obstinately and vehemently you were sticking to your incorrect opinion before.

Constance said...

John, how funny!

I was just going to note that 'woah' has spread quite far into American usage, through the internet. I haven't performed a statistical analysis, or anything, but I seem to recall that it's heavily used in some of my favorite online forums.

But that could just be my impression, that since 'woah' is 'non-standard' in AmE, it's automatically more notable. Ya never know, with the human mind......

RWMG said...

In the interests of full disclosure of wrongness becoming rightness, I must admit that if I had ever been asked,which fortunately I never was, I would have said as an English speaker from the South of England, that 'whoa' was the standard English form and that 'woah' was an American import.

Mark said...

I don't think I've ever seen the "woah" spelling, but if I did I'd just assume the writer was an illiterate idiot. I'm British.

In fact, when I saw the title of this post I thought "Oh, do Americans spell it 'woah'? That's interesting"

Elizabeth said...

I must admit I've never thought about spelling that before, but I think that if I had I would have gone with woh or woe and hoped for the best.

Ginger Yellow said...

I always used to get confused about this, so I decided to implement my own rule. "Whoa" for "Stop, horse". "Woah" for "Hello, my name is Keanu Reeves".

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I (Southern England) grew up spelling it "Whoa!" and considered the "Woah!" spelling to be illiterate tabloidese, having, thus far, only seen it in the red-tops. Ah well, you learn something new every day, as they say - but if I ever have occasion to write it, or even use it, I shall still spell it "Whoa!"

mollymooly said...

Expanding on my previous comment, I deplore the spelling "whacko" for "wacko" because I don't pronounce the H.

@John Cowan: I hesitate to recommend cultivating the desire to become right. The most fanatically intolerant fundamentalists are always the converts. Whereas "becoming right" ought to be a lifelong process, too many view it as a once-and-for-all event which they look back on with a smug complacency, or worse.

lynneguist said...

@mollymooly: since all of these have come to us from 'ho', and early spellings like 'who' included the 'h', I'd think it possible that it started out as /hw/. I think there can be some preaspiration (though not as precisely made as hwen one says hwich) when saying it emphatically (which one tends to do anyway). Not sure if I actually ever say it that way in natural circumstances, but I can say it in a perfectly believable way right now at my desk...

lynneguist said...

Sorry, my last comment should have been directed
@Rick S
more so than mollymooly.

I'd be cautious, Rick, about assuming that 'woah' is earlier than 'whoa'. There are only a few years' difference between the earliest quotations for the two, and interjections are the kinds of things that are particularly hard to pin down in print. Just because the OED found an earlier example of 'woah', doesn't mean that there were no earlier examples of 'whoa'--and they do seem to think that 'woah' is a variant of 'whoa' and not the other way (a)round.

Anonymous said...

It is not a word that is often written down, in my experience. When I first saw Lynne's posting, I thought she was going to be talking about "whoarrh!!!" which may or may not be the correct spelling for an ejaculation (of the verbal kind) that someone a man might make when seeing a photo of a scantily-clad lady in a tabloid newspaper.

lynneguist said...

Oooh, I meant to include that!

I usually see it as something like phwoarrr. See this. Definitely should write more on this subject at some point!

Gordon P. Hemsley said...

Actually, Ginger Yellow raises an interesting point. I feel inclined to agree with the statement that "whoa" would be used to stop a horse (a command), whereas "woah" is used to express surprise (an interjection/exclamation).

Jethed said...

As a native Brit (although admittedly also a former US resident), I'd always go for 'whoa'. The spelling is particularly useful when something's proper impressive and/or surprising; the initial 'wh' can be extended for some seconds (preferably with puffed cheeks and furrowed brow) for effect, which is not possible with a simple 'w'.

To my (untrained) eye 'woah' follows 'Noah' because the 'h' qualifies the 'a', encouraging us to sound it, whereas in 'whoa' the 'h' qualifies the 'w' and the 'a' the 'o', which as we all know is the important bit of the word.

Macha said...

I (US English) always pronounced the "w" and "h" in "whoa," until I began to ride horses and discovered that it is, of course, "HO! or HOOOOoooo! to those in the know.

When I'm particularly eager for a horse to stop, I sometimes slip back into the "whoa!" pronunciation. It's much less effective- though probably because the horse can sense my lack of concentration/confidence, not because they notice the "w."

Jeff Frane said...

It's always poor form for a first-time commenter to go off-topic . . . but I'm pretty sure "woah" was also the sound TinTin's dog Snowy makes when in distress, at least in the English translations. I never figured out how to pronounce it.

Ginger Yellow said...

In French, Milou barks "Wouah!" or "Ouah!"

Picky said...

Are these American horses, Macha?

disgruntled said...

It's official: in Colorado, it's WhoaI'd guess that the 'wh' association with horses may be related to other horsey noises like 'whinny' and 'whicker' which are onomatopoeic.

mollymooly said...

The spelling variation whoar/phwoar, like whew/phew, suggests an initial voiceless bilabial fricative.

Macha said...

Picky, they are American horses, though a few have fancy European pedigrees. They're also spoken to a lot in Spanish, so I guess they're trilingual- US English, Spanish and Equine.

Picky said...

Well, that's your problem, you see, Macha. So many people think that if you just speak English loud enough, anyone can understand it. Probably the same thing goes for Spanish. Take the trouble to speak to the poor souls in Equine, for heaven's sake.

I'm with mollymooly on pronunciation. "Woe!!!" But a long, long vowel rising and then falling in strength. And, being a Londoner, I have the ghost of a "w" at the end of the vowel.

angelabrett said...

When I saw the title, I thought, 'Oh, because whoa is what you say to a horse, and woah is the interjection, right?' and then I was a little disappointed when that didn't turn out to be the resolution. I'm glad Ginger Yellow said it.

All the English variants on the Mac spellcheck (well, currently I'm using Safari on Windows, but I assume it uses the same word list as in the systemwide spell checker on Mac OS X) say that woah is wrong.

Susie said...

I'm adding my thoughts in agreement with Macha (great name for a horsewoman, by the way!) and disgruntled. I'm American, grew up in Colorado and rode horses for many years. I didn't see the spelling "woah" until I found the internet, and always by young people who presumably are spelling it the way they pronounce it. It always pains me to see it, however, as I was taught "whoa" is the correct spelling.

I also learned to pronounce it "Ho!" while riding, but I tend to say "woe" in conversation. :) And I will add that at the famous Spring Creek Ranch resort in Jackson, WY, the stop signs all say "Whoa."

Gordon P. Hemsley said...

I wonder if there's any connection to the spelling of "yeah". Do some people spell it "yhea"? Or some other variant?

John Cowan said...

Constance: Funny, yes, but also serious. I actually do cultivate this viewpoint, though not always successfully, to be sure.

Mollymooly: Quite so; nevertheless, the process as I describe it can and should be repeated.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who remembers "Woah" as the barking sound emitted by Snowy, the white dog belonging to Tintin in the comic books of that name?

Anonymous said...

yeah you're kinda old lol

e-clair said...

Well I live in South East England and I would have written it 'woah', but saying it this way also (though wouldn't have thought whoa was wrong either) and am sure I have heard it said 'wo-ah' often...but then maybe I have just created this dellusion in my own mind?!

e-clair said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Araignée said...

I happened to stumble onto your blog post and thought I'd support the "whoa" cause. Below are a few corpus links. COHA has over 400 million words in various genres (spoken, fiction, newspaper, magazine) balanced across the years, and the BNC, although much smaller, also has genre balance. It appears from these that "whoa" is the more accepted form in either dialect...

COHA (whoa, woah)
BNC (whoa, woah)

ichsteh said...

Great post!! I'm an Assyriologist but often wish I'd studied linguistics!

In defense of those of us who misspell whoa, to the person who assumed that those who spell it woah are illiterate idiots, I think it's forgivable to misspell slang words that are hardly ever written down.

But then again, I'll admit that the advent of spellcheck and the internet has made me a pretty bad speller.

conuly said...

That's nothing. I know people who spell it "woe", as in "oh woe is me". Oy vey!

And while nobody, Gordon, spells yeah yhea, there are people who spell it yea. As in "yea, though I walk...."

Gordon P. Hemsley said...

Actually, conuly, the "woe" in "woe is me" is a completely different word, usually used as a noun (as in this example).

Interestingly, Dictionary.com has "whoa" as the horse-stopper, but does not have "woah" at all. I think, then, that I prefer "whoa" as the word that stops a horse, but "woah" as an non-horse-related exclamation.

As for "yeah" vs. "yea", the latter spelling is actually supposed to be reserved for the word that sounds like "yay", as in "yea or nay".

Anonymous said...

People who spell the word "whoa" as "woah" are basically illiterate online comment posters. They hear the word, but never see it written in print, a medium typically written and edited by educated people. "Whoa" means "stop", when communicating with horses.

lynneguist said...

Anonymous, did you read this post?

erin said...

I'm a young person and American (though I do talk with some British people on the internet, and have thus adopted some of their slang), and I have never felt comfortable with the "whoa" spelling (it just looks "odd" to me, like "cocoa" or something).

Thus, I use "woah," but though my usage will often be intended to be pronounced as one-syllable ("whoh"), I usually read that spelling written by anyone else as "wo-ah."

It's not exactly a logical method, but I don't think I'd ever be able to switch over to "whoa." It just looks too awkward.

Anonymous said...

As a youngish antipodean, I would have said 'whoa' was the spelling used by illiterates/americans.

To me:
Woah - Keanu Reeves type astonishment, pronounced slowly
Whoa - Rappers appreciating a woman, said quickly

Anonymous said...

The whole "woah" thing mildly infuriates me. No one under 21 spells it "whoa" anymore and I'm beginning to think that spelling might become a cyclical thing because of the Internet.

In a few years people will bring back "gud" and "appel" and "aks" and no one will call them out on it.

Even when I correct people on it they say that they won't change because they like their way better.

Of course I can't do anything about it. They're right. Well not that it's better but that it is indeed correct. Though they don't care that it's correct they never intended on changing anyway.

I think that's the part that makes me upset. Because these same folks will start up some big stuff for anyone who says "you're" instead of "your" or what have you. And seeing as they didn't even know that their usage of a spelling of a word was technically correct I don't get how they can get off lecturing other folks about a common mistake.

There's also this whole thing where people put the dollar sign behind the amount. It's a new thing. It technically makes sense but it's completely wrong.

Oh well. I guess I better just roll with it. There's nothing I can do.

Woe is me.

Eric said...

What about “whoah”? I think that way is probably coming to me from seeing it spelled both ways, not paying attention to it, so a combination of both ways seems like it.

David Crosbie said...

I don't find the disyllabic American pronunciation of Noah to be significant . The same is true of British pronunciation — and of H-less boa, stoa etc.

Could it be that there's something totally specific to the word whoa that makes the spelling difficult to learn and unattractive to recognise? My hunch is that many are put out by the wh spelling of a short word which isn't a member of the set of grammar words — interrogatives, relatives, conjunctions. As writers, they may be aware that there's conventionally an H in the word, but feel reluctant to use wh for a word where it doesn't feel as if it belongs. As readers, they may register it as less of an anomaly, and so something to be copied.

Unlike other short words such as whit, whet, whale there's a spelling representing an open vowel. It doesn't look so wrong if somebody has put the H somewhere else. With is a different word, andweth could be a word. Both would suggest an unwanted change of consonant, and waleh would suggest an extra unwanted vowel. Whey does have letters representing an open vowel, but there's nowhere we could move the H to without it appearing even worse: wehy, weyh.

Libellule said...

It is the same interjection ("whoa") whether expressing surprise or commanding a horse to slow (the meaning is not much different. You're still expressing surprise if you're on an out-of-control horse). Same word, just used in slightly different contexts. Same as how "aw" can be used in different ways: aw, shucks. Aw, cute. Aw, sad. Aw, do I really have to go to bed? I can buy adding extra w's for emphasis in informal online prose (awwwww, cute little baby!) but I draw the line at "awe," which is akin to amazement, and is not an interjection. "Awe, cute"? You can miss me with that one--and with "woah," which is not a word.