Q: I’ve noticed the increasing use of “wallah” for “voilà” in speech and writing. I suppose this because Americans are ignorant of other languages, and so use an American English pronunciation and spelling for foreign-sourced words.
A: None of the standard US and UK dictionaries we usually consult include the “wallah” (or “walla”) spelling or pronunciation for the interjection.
The dictionaries spell it only two ways, “voilà” or “voila.” Some list the accented version first and some list it second. The pronunciation given is roughly vwa-LA, with an audible “v.”
We also couldn’t find a reference to the use of “wallah” for “voilà” in the Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary with extensive etymologies.
However, the online collaborative reference Wiktionary includes “wallah” as an “informal” alternative form for “voila” and “voilà,” though it doesn’t give any examples.
Of course, standard dictionaries do have entries for “wallah,” a word of Hindi origin for someone involved in a particular occupation or activity, such as an “ice-cream wallah” or a “kitchen wallah.” That word is pronounced WAH-la.
The use of “wallah” for “voilà” seems to have shown up in print in the late 1990s. (A reader of the blog recalls hearing it in speech in Indiana in the 1960s and ’70s.)
In the earliest written example that we’ve found, the writer is clearly aware of at least one standard spelling, and he is using “wallah” humorously,
Here’s the quotation, from an Aug. 6, 1997, comment on a woodworking website about how to calculate the weight of hard maple from its specific gravity:
“The ‘specific gravity’ of materials is their weight divided by the weight of 1 cubic foot of water (which weighs 62.4 lbs/cubic foot). Voila (that’s ‘wallah’)!, so 0.63 X 62.4 = 39.3.”
And here’s an example, from a comment on a Dodge discussion group, followed by a correction from another commenter:
“Pull the cummins and install a powerstroke…Wallah!!!”
“thats ‘Voila’ to most of us.”
In early 2006, the use of “wallah” for “voilà” came to the attention of the Eggcorn Forum, a language discussion group. An eggcorn is a word or phrase substitution like “egg corn” for “acorn.”
The forum’s first of several “wallah”-vs.-“voila” threads began with this Jan. 5, 2006, comment: “As in, ‘be sure to beat the eggs thoroughly before you add them to the pan, and wallah! Your omelette will be perfect!’ ”
And here’s a Dec. 21, 2006, comment: “My best guess on the v > w change is that the w in the French (vwala) weakens the v to the point where it may be more like a beta, and then the process continues to drop the v entirely.”
In other words, some English speakers are Anglicizing the French word by dropping the “v” sound at the beginning of the usual vwa-LA pronunciation.
If that explanation is true, then “wallah” and wa-LA would be spelling and pronunciation variants rather than true eggcorns (word phrase substitutions).
In an Oct. 23, 2007, posting on the Language Log, the linguist Arnold Zwicky offers a “reflection on why ear spellings should be so likely for this word.”
“If you’ve heard the word, you probably know how to use it in sentences, but if you haven’t seen it in print (or don’t remember having seen it in print, or didn’t realize that the spelling ‘voilà’ represented this particular word), you’re in trouble,” Zwicky writes.
You’re supposed to look up words if you don’t know their spellings, he says, “but where do you look in this case?”
“If you don’t know French, or don’t recognize the French origin of the word, what would possess you to look under VOI in a dictionary, especially if your pronunciation of the word begins with /w/?”
Zwicky adds parenthetically that he thinks wa-LA “is the most common current pronunciation, at least for people who aren’t ‘putting on,’ or at least approximating, French.”
Over the years, contributors to the Eggcorn Forum have suggested several other theories about the source of the “wallah” spelling and wa-LA pronunciation. Perhaps the most interesting (and we think least likely) is that “wallah” comes from a similar-sounding modern Hebrew exclamation of surprise or delight. [A reader writes on Aug. 10, 2016, that in Arabic it means “I swear to God” or “Really!”]
As for the etymology of “voilà” itself, English borrowed it in the 18th century from French (the imperative of voir, to see, plus là, there).
The earliest example in the OED is from an April 12, 1739, letter by the English poet Thomas Gray: “The minute we came, voila Milors Holdernesse, Conway, and his brother.”
[Note: This post was updated on April 5, 2018.]