The Grammarphobia Blog

The astonishing life of “Wow!”

Q: I’ve been seeing a lot of people use “wow” to preface a critical or sarcastic comment: “Wow, yet another moronic statement,” or “Wow, you must think the world is flat.” What is “wow” supposed to be? An expression of disbelief? Surprise? Awe? I can’t imagine that people in the 19th century used it (wrong I could be, though).

A: Yes, wrong you could be. The interjection “wow” first showed up in the early 1500s, though it was primarily used then in Scottish English.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the usage in its early sense this way: “An exclamation, variously expressing aversion, surprise or admiration, sorrow or commiseration, or mere asseveration.” Touches all the bases, doesn’t it?

The first published reference in the OED is from Gavin Douglas’s 1513 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Out on thir wanderand spiritis, wow! thow cryis.”

By the late 1800s, according to Oxford, the interjection was in “general use” among English speakers. Now, it’s chiefly used for “expressing astonishment or admiration.”

The dictionary’s first citation for this newer usage is from Nada the Lily, an 1892 historical novel by H. Rider Haggard: “Wow! my father, of those two regiments not one escaped.”

Here’s a more recent citation, from R. B. Dominic’s novel The Attending Physician (1980): “ ‘Wow!’ Mike Isham whistled reverently. ‘No wonder she was willing to murder.’ ” (R. B. Dominic is a pen name used by the economists Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart. Emma Lathen is another of their pen names.)

The noun “wow” (a sensational success), the adjective “wow” (exciting, delightful), and the exclamation “wowey!” (later “wowee!”) all showed up in the early 1920s, according to OED citations.

Why “wow”? The OED doesn’t exactly say, but it notes the similarity with the interjection “vow” (used in Scottish English to emphasize a statement). Oxford says this use of  “vow” is probably a clipped version of “I vow.”

You ask about the use of “wow” in critical or sarcastic statements online. We’ve noticed it too, but we haven’t seen this sense of the word in standard dictionaries.

We’ll end with a hyphenated version of “wowee” from a 1963 issue of Mad Magazine: Boy! Wow-wee! That’s quite an exciting evening line-up!”

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