The Grammarphobia Blog

Whooping it up!

Q: Your Eminences, what is the derivation of “oops”? And what about “whoops”?

A: There’s more to this “oops” and “whoops” business than meets the eye. And the ultimate answer may go back to Jonathan Swift in the 18th century.

The word “oops” is an interjection expressing “apology, dismay, or surprise, especially after an obvious but usually minor mistake,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says it’s perhaps a natural expression or possibly a shortening of an earlier expression, “upsidaisy,” which is now usually spelled “upsy-daisy” when it appears in standard dictionaries.

The OED‘s first citation for “oops” in print is from a 1922 caption (not sure whether it was for an illustration or a photo) in the Washington Post.

The related interjection “whoops” is considered a variation of “oops.” It often appears in a more elaborate version, “whoopsie-daisy,” also derived from “upsidaisy.”

The OED‘s first “whoops” and “whoopsie” citations are from the 1920s and ’30s. In 1925, for example, the New Yorker printed a caption reading “Whoopsie Daisy!” And in 1937 Ezra Pound wrote in a letter: “Whoops! And do I envy you. I do.”

Now, on to “upsy-daisy.” The OED gives “upsidaisy” as the primary spelling and lists a whole batch of variant spellings: “oops-a-daisy,” “upsey-daisy,” “upsa daesy,” “ups-a-daisy,” “upsy daisy,” and so on.

These started appearing in the mid-19th century. Here are some of the OED‘s earliest citations:

1862, C. Clough Robinson, The Dialect of Leeds and Its Neighbourhood: “Upsa daesy! a common ejaculation when a child, in play, is assisted in a spring-leap from the ground.”

1904, Saturday Review: “There is little Freddy waiting … to be lifted – ‘upsidaisy’ – into his perambulator.”

1912, John Sandilands, Western Canadian Dictionary and Phrase-Book: “Ups-a-daisy, the tender words of the fond father when engaged in baby-jumping.”

1934, Dorothy L. Sayers, Nine Tailors: “Hoops-a-daisy, over she goes!”

And here are some shortened forms:

1922, James Joyce, Ulysses: “Hoopsa! Don’t fall upstairs.”

1928, E. M. Forster, The Life to Come: “Upsa! Take care!”

“Upsidaisy” and its variants are all considered outgrowths of an earlier interjection, “up-a-daisy,” which the OED describes as “an exclamation made to a child on encouraging or assisting it to rise from a fall, etc., or to surmount an obstacle, or when raising it in the arms or jerking it into the air.”

Jerking? Oh well. Anyway, here are its earliest appearances in print.

1711, Jonathan Swift, The Journal to Stella: “So – up a-dazy.”

1756, William Toldervy, The History of Two Orphans: ” ‘Up-a-daisey,’ said Miss Bella, and then … gave him a push behind.”

1854, A. E. Baker, Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases: “Up-a-daisy, a fondling expression of a nurse to a child whilst lifting it from the ground, encouraging it to assist itself in rising.”

If this doesn’t answer your question, I can only say “oops!”

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