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 Latin 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.”
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 Aug. 14, 2021.)