[Note: An updated post on the naming of the letter w” was published on Feb. 20, 2023.)
Q: Why is the letter “w” called “double u”? It looks like a “double v” to me.
A: The name of the 23rd letter of the English alphabet is “double u” because it was originally written that way in Anglo-Saxon times.
As the Oxford English Dictionary explains it, the ancient Roman alphabet did not have a letter “w.”
So in the 7th century, when the Latin alphabet was first used in early Old English writing, it was necessary to invent a symbol to represent that sound.
At first, the sound was represented by “uu”—literally a double “u.”
It wasn’t written as a “v” because the letter “v” didn’t exist in Old English, as we’ve written before on the blog. And a double “v” would not have approximated the sound anyway.
The “uu” was replaced by another symbol in the 8th century, ƿ, a character from the runic alphabet called a wynn.
In the 11th century, according to the OED, the old “uu” form was reintroduced by Norman scribes in a ligatured (that is, joined) form, written as “w.”
In early versions of “Cædmon’s Hymn,” which originated in the seventh century and is considered the oldest recorded Old English poem, “w” is written as “uu” in two words, uuldurfadur (glorious father) and uundra (wonder). Here’s an excerpt from a manuscript written in the 730s:
“Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard / metudæs maecti end his modgidanc / uerc uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihuaes / eci dryctin or astelidæ” (“Now we must praise the heavenly kingdom’s guardian, / the creator’s might and his conception, / the creation of the wondrous father, thus each of the wonders / that he ordained at the beginning”).
In later Old English documents the two words are written either with the runic ƿ (ƿuldor fæder, ƿundra) or a “w” ligature (wuldorfæder, wundra).
But no matter how the “w” has been written, the OED says, “It has never lost its original name of ‘double U.’ ”
[This post was updated on Dec. 20, 2022.)