Q: At a recent reunion, we were asked to share a WOW and a POW in our lives—that is, an upper and a downer. What is the etymology of these terms? Are they acronyms, or something else? How did they enter English?
A: “Wow” and “pow” are exclamations of a very different nature. While “wow” represents a feeling (like surprise or awe), “pow” imitates a sound (that of a blow or a punch).
As a noun, the way it was used at your reunion, “wow” means a sensational success, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary that focuses on the history of words.
Neither the OED nor standard dictionaries, which focus on the current meaning of words, define “pow” as anything but the sound of a blow. But at your reunion, “pow” was used creatively as a noun to mean an unhappy blow.
We wrote posts in 2012 and 2014 about “wow.” As we noted, it was recorded as far back as the 1500s in Scottish English. By the late 1800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the interjection was in “general use” among English speakers to express “astonishment or admiration.”
The OED doesn’t offer any further explanation for the derivation of “wow.” However, it notes a similarity with the interjection “vow” (probably a clipped version of “I vow”), which was used in Scottish English to emphasize a statement.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that the noun “wow” (a sensational success), the adjective “wow” (exciting, delightful), and the exclamation “wowey!” (later “wowee!”) appeared on the scene, according to OED citations.
As for “pow,” the OED says it’s an interjection and a noun of “imitative or expressive” origin. The word represents “the sound of a blow, punch, shot, etc.,” Oxford says, like “Wham!” and “Bang!”
While the interjection was recorded around 1580, it didn’t appear again until the late 1800s, and the OED says it’s “uncertain whether there is any continuity between” the early example and the later use.
So that first example may be a fluke. It appeared in The Bugbears (circa 1580), John Jeffrey’s English translation of an Italian play. The word, which Jeffrey spelled “powe,” represents a knock at a door: “I will knocke … powe! ho? who is in the house?”
The modern use of “pow” originated in late 19th-century America, the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a story by Joel Chandler Harris, published in Scribner’s Monthly in June 1881. Here, “pow” represents a smack given to a horse: “He step en hit de hoss a rap—pow!”
The usage spread to Britain in the 20th century. One of the Oxford citations is from the Leicester Chronicle (Nov. 26, 1976): “In some cases that does not mean films which are more sanguinary, but poorly made action stuff with entire reliance on the pows and kerplunks.”
The dictionary also gives this figurative usage, from the American writer James Morrow’s fantasy novel Only Begotten Daughter (1990): “I’m fertile as a cheerleader. All we need is some pixie dust and—pow!”
Like “pow,” the interjections “biff” (first recorded in 1843), “bam” (1922), “kerplunk” (1923), and “wham” (1924) are associated with cartoons and comic strips. They’re usually printed in capital letters and festooned with exclamation points.
These exclamations are as much a part of the “funnies” as the random strings of symbols—like %&*&##@—that represent swear words. As we wrote on the blog in 2011, there are words for these cartoonish obscenities: “grawlix,” coined in 1964 by the cartoonist Mort Walker, and “obscenicon,” introduced in 2006 by the linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer.