The Grammarphobia Blog

When a woman was a WOW!

Q: As a civilian conducting research for the US military in Afghanistan, I came across a reference to the Women Ordnance Workers during World War II. The women were referred to by the acronym “WOW,” which led me to your post about the origins of the exclamation “Wow!” Interested?

A: As we said in that 2012 post, the interjection “wow” first showed up in the early 1500s, but it was primarily used at that time in Scottish English.

By the late 1800s, though, the exclamation was in general use among English speakers. Now, as you know, it’s chiefly used to express astonishment or admiration.

In other words, the usage was around well before World War II. But the Women Ordnance Workers were indeed referred to as “WOWs,” and the acronym was sometimes followed by an exclamation point.

Wartime posters celebrating these women, who worked in war plants making weapons, ammunition, and other military supplies, clearly played on the similarity between the acronym “WOW” and the exclamation “Wow!”

One poster, featuring a Woman Ordnance Worker and a GI in combat, reads: “THE GIRL HE LEFT BEHIND” / IS STILL BEHIND HIM / She’s a WOW

Another example, a poster showing a soldier holding a photo of his girlfriend, reads: “My girl’s a WOW”

The best-known Woman Ordnance Worker was the iconic Rosie the Riveter—actually, various Rosies were featured in song, on the air, and in print.

Here’s the beginning of the 1942 song “Rosie the Riveter,” written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb:

All the day long, whether rain or shine
She’s a part of the assembly line
She’s making history, working for victory
Rosie, brrrrrrrrrrr, the riveter
.

(The “brrrrrrrrrrr” in the lyrics, as you’ve probably guessed, is the sound of a rivet gun.)

Many people think of Rosie when they see the civilian war worker in J. Howard Miller’s 1943 “We Can Do It!” poster for Westinghouse.

However, the worker in the poster, who’s wearing the red-and-white head scarf of the Women Ordnance Workers, wasn’t referred to as “Rosie the Riveter” during the war years.

The most widely seen illustration of a WOW during the war was probably Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” cover on the May 29, 1943, issue of the Saturday Evening Post.

The picture shows a muscular woman with a rivet gun resting on her lap as she eats a sandwich during her lunch break.

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