English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Ask, and it shall be given

Q: I wish you’d talk about the current trend to say “ask forgiveness” instead of “ask for forgiveness.” Is the shorter version acceptable these days?

A: Yes, it’s acceptable and it has been for hundreds of years. Phrases like “ask forgiveness” and “ask mercy” and “ask leave” (with no intervening preposition) have been around since at least the 1300s.

Here’s an early “mercy” example from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Thai ask mercy, bot nocht at ȝow” (“They ask mercy but not of thou”). From The Bruce, 1375, a narrative poem by the Scottish writer John Barbour.

And here’s an early “forgiveness” citation in the OED: “A man schuld all anely ask him forgifnes wham he trespast to.” From Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which the British Library dates at the last quarter of the 14th or first quarter of the 15th century.

The preposition is often unnecessary, especially when “ask” is used in the sense of “request” or “seek.”

Examples: “I’m asking permission” … “Ask him the time” … “He asked the child’s name” … “Let’s ask the price” … “Did you ask the way?” … “Don’t ask the reason” … “I didn’t ask why” … “Never ask her age” … “Can I ask the score?” and many others.

Sometimes the use of a preposition (like “for” or “about”) between “ask” and the object is optional and the choice is up to you. In some cases, though a preposition is always used, as in “We asked after his mother’s health” and “When you arrive, ask for the manager” and “Don’t ask about that.”

Most of this stuff is idiomatic, and there are few hard-and-fast rules. But as the OED says, the use of a preposition here is “more usual when the thing requested is concrete” rather than abstract.

So one would “ask for” a loan or a refrigerator. But one could either “ask” or “ask for” forgiveness; both usages were common in a recent search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Sex under the arches

Q: I’m curious about the origin of “fornication.” How did we get from arches and vaults to sex between people not married to each other?

A: In ancient Rome, prostitutes used to hang out in vaulted cellars such as those formed by the arches underneath circuses (arenas for sports and other spectacles).

Not surprisingly, fornix, the Latin word for an arch or a vault, came to mean a brothel, and fornicis, its genitive form, begot fornicari, to fornicate, and fornicatio, fornication.

As W. C. Firebaugh explains in notes to his 1922 translation of the Satyricon of Petronius, “The arches under the circus were a favorite location for prostitutes,” who “were always ready at hand to satisfy the inclinations which the spectacles aroused.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology adds that “brothels in ancient Rome were often located in underground basements” and “prostitutes solicited their business under the arches of certain buildings.”

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, says early Christian writers identified “vaulted underground dwellings” with prostitution “and employed the term [fornix] with the specific meaning ‘brothel.’ ”

Interestingly, fornix is probably derived from fornus, furnus, or fornax, Latin for oven and a source of “furnace,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Ultimately, the dictionary says, the usage comes from gwher-, a reconstructed prehistoric root meaning to heat or warm.

Standard dictionaries define the noun “fornication” as consensual sexual intercourse between two people who aren’t married to each other.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for the noun is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem that the dictionary dates at sometime before 1300:

“Þis sin has branches fele … fornicacion es an” (“this sin [adultery] has many branches … fornication is one”).

The verb “fornicate” showed up in writing in the 16th century, with an early spelling of the infinitive.The first Oxford citation is from a 16th-century English-Latin dictionary:

“Fornicaten, or commit fornication or lechery, fornicor” (from Abcedarium Anglico Latinum, 1552, by Richard Huloet). Fornicari, source of “fornicate,” is the present active infinitive of fornicor.

The earliest example we’ve seen for the verb with its modern spelling is from the Douay–Rheims Bible of 1582: “Neither let vs fornicate, as certaine of them did fornicate, and there fel in one day three and twentie thousand” (1 Corinthians 10:8).

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Girl Scout kapers

Q: I’m a life Girl Scout who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s. I always assumed that the term “kaper” in Girl Scout language was somehow related to “KP” because of the echo and the meaning. But when I Google it now all I get is that it’s a job, not necessarily one involving meals. Can you tell me more?

A: In Girl Scout terminology, a “kaper” is now simply a chore or job, and a “kaper chart” is a list of chores. But as you suspect, the usage probably comes from “KP,” short for “kitchen police,” and the earliest examples we’ve seen involve food preparation and cleanup.

We haven’t found the Girl Scout terms in any standard, etymological, or slang dictionary, but our searches of old newspaper and book databases indicate that the usage showed up in the US during the 1940s. Here are two early examples:

“Girls of Troop No. 1 have made plans for the meeting of June 4th, when Bennett Intermediate Troop will be their guests for the day. Last Monday they planned their menu, and at the next meeting at 10 A. M. on May 28, a ‘Kaper chart’ will be made for dividing the duties.” (From The Adams County News in Aurora, CO, May 29, 1945.)

“The girls have practiced the accepted method of making bed rolls, planning menus and purchasing food. Mrs. Thomas has arranged for a Kaper chart which gives each girl her share of fire building, cooking and cleaning up.” (From an article about a Girl Scout camping trip, in a suburban New York paper, The Bronxville Reporter, May 8, 1947.)

Today, as you’ve noticed, Girl Scouts use the terms “kaper” and “kaper chart” in reference to any chores or jobs, food-related or otherwise. Here, for example, is a description and an image from the website of the Girl Scouts of Southwest Indiana:

“A ‘kaper chart’ is a Girl Scout tradition for dividing up troop responsibilities. A kaper is a job or chore that must be done. A kaper chart indicates all the jobs available and who is responsible for each one.”page1image3956056992

As for “kitchen police,” the term first appeared in the US Army in the 19th century, when it referred to enlisted men “detailed to help the cook, wash dishes, etc.,” according the Oxford English Dictionary. The first OED citation is from Fighting Indians in the 7th United States Cavalry: Custer’s Favorite Regiment (1879), by Ami Frank Mulford:

“The sawmill men would go to the Government mill and saw lumber to be used in the different buildings, the Quartermaster’s men would report at the store-houses, the Stable Police to the stables, Kitchen Police to the kitchens and mess room.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the shorter version, “KP,” is from World War I: “K.P., Kitchen Police. A mild form of punishment.” (Army and Navy Information: Uniforms, Organization, Arms and Equipment of the Warring Powers, 1917, by Maj. De Witt Clinton Falls, National Guard, New York. Falls, an author and artist, rose through the ranks from a private to a brigadier general.)

We’ll end with an OED citation, which we’ve expanded, from Three Soldiers, a 1921 novel about World War I by John Dos Passos:

The men, holding their oval mess kits in front of them, filed by the great tin buckets at the door, out of which meat and potatoes were splashed into each plate by a sweating K.P. in blue denims.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Rock around o’clock

Q: The word o’clock is an oddball. Are there any more words in English where a contraction is at the beginning?

A: Yes, o’clock is an odd contraction, but it’s not unique.

Most of the contractions we use in contemporary English were formed by combining two words, with the final word shortened and the missing part replaced by an apostrophe, as in I’ll (I + will), they’re (they + are), and don’t (do + not).

The contraction o’clock is an exception, since the beginning word is the one that’s shortened. The o’ here is a shortening of the preposition of, and o’clock was originally of clock, meaning “of or according to the clock.”

In addition to o’clock, the element O’ appears in some Irish surnames as the Anglicized version of the Gaelic Ó (in O’Brien, O’Connell, O’Neil, etc.), where it stands for “descendant of.”

And sometimes the first part of an expression is contracted in colloquial writing, as with y’all (you + all), c’mon (come + on), and s’pose (for suppose).

In the past, it was more common to shorten the first part of a contraction or even both parts, as in ha’n’t (have + not), sha’n’t (shall + not), ’tis (it + is), ’twere (it + were), and ’twill (it + will).

And here are a couple of archaic three-word contractions—’twon’t (it + will + not) and ’twouldn’t (it + would + not)—along with one that’s still seen today,  ne’er-do-well (never + do + well).

Some single words were often contracted in older English. In addition to ne’er for never, there was o’er for over and e’er for ever. And some single words are still contracted: forecastle is often written as fo’c’sle or fo’c’s’le, and boatswain as bos’n, bo’s’n, or bo’sun, though bosun is more common. And, as you know, madam is often contracted as ma’am.

Technically, the shortened part of a contraction is a “clitic”; it’s unstressed and normally occurs only in combination with another term. A contracted part at the beginning (like the o’ in o’clock) is a “proclitic” and one at the end (like the ’re in they’re) is an “enclitic.”

Some words that are now considered short forms of longer ones began life as contractions, with the first part replaced by an apostrophe: ’copter (from helicopter), ’cello (from violoncello), and ’gator (from alligator). Eventually the apostrophes dropped away.

Others words showed up first as shortenings (not contractions), but were later occasionally written with apostrophes: flu (from influenza), phone (from telephone), and quake (from earthquake).

Getting back to o’clock, the usage first appeared in the form of clok in the early 15th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a 1419 proclamation by King Henry V, ordering reinforcements rushed to the British Army in Normandy during the Hundred Years War with France:

“let hem arraye and make hem redy in þe best wyse þat þey can or may, in alle hast, and come to Seint Dunstanes in þe Est, a Monday þat next comeþ, at eyghte of clok.” Cited in A Book of London English, 1384–1425, edited by Raymond Wilson Chambers and Marjorie Daunt (1931).

The term was also written variously as off clok, of clokke, of clocke, of clock, and oclock (as well as a kloke, a clocke, etc.) until the modern spelling emerged in the early 17th century:

“Well, ’tis nine o’clock, ’tis time to ring curfew” (from The Merry Devill of Edmonton, 1608, an anonymous Elizabethan comedy that was once attributed to Shakespeare).

As for the use of O’ in Anglicized Irish names, the OED describes it as “a prefix in Irish patronymic surnames” that indicates “descent from an ancient Irish family.” A patronymic is a name derived from a father or paternal ancestor.

The dictionary says the usage is derived from ó, Irish for a grandson or descendant, and the “apostrophe probably derives from the Irish length-mark” over ó. The mark, a síneadh fada, indicates a long vowel. So O’Brien is an Anglicized version of the modern Irish Ó Briain and the classical Irish Ua Briain.

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Suffrage, then and now

Q: I was surprised by the use of “woman suffrage” rather than “women’s suffrage” in a history textbook. The term seems odd to me. Is “woman suffrage” just a less popular variant?

A: Both forms of the expression are common, “woman suffrage” and “women’s suffrage.” While publishers’ preferences may vary, one is no more “correct” than the other.

In the first version, “woman suffrage,” the noun “woman” is used attributively (that is, adjectivally, as in “man cave”). In the second, “women’s suffrage,” the genitive “women’s” is used to indicate “for whom”—suffrage for women.

While “woman suffrage” has been more common historically, a recent Ngram comparison shows that the two are now almost equal in popularity.

Now for a little history. “Suffrage” in these expressions means the right to vote in political elections. But the word didn’t always have that meaning.

When “suffrage” entered English in the 1300s it had religious meanings associated with the medieval Christian church. Used in the plural, “suffrages” were prayers, petitions, commemorations, pleas for intercession, and so on, often addressed to a particular saint.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, these prayers or petitions were “typically said at the end of one of the daily offices, or incorporated into a book of hours.”

The earliest known use is from Ancrene Riwle (“rule for anchoresses”), an anonymous Middle English guide for monastic women. The work survives in several manuscripts, some dating to the early 1200s; this OED citation is from a copy made in the late 1300s:

“On niȝth oiþer in þe Mornynge after þe suffrages seiþ þe commendacioun” (“Either at night or in the morning after the suffrages say the commendation”).

The word was borrowed into English partly from French and partly from Latin, and in those languages it had several meanings, according to the OED.

In Middle French, suffrage or soufrage meant “prayer, intercession, especially for the souls of the dead,” as well as a vote, an act of voting, and “help, support, assistance.”

In classical Latin, suffragium meant a “vote cast in an assembly, expression of approval, action of voting, right of voting, decision reached by voting, favourable influence, help.” Later, in post-classical Latin, it also came to mean “prayer, intercession.”

Though “suffrage” was exclusively a religious term in medieval Britain, it widened in the 16th century to include senses related to voting.

As a political term “suffrage” originally meant “the collective vote of a group of people, esp. that of a nation’s citizens eligible to vote in a political election,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s earliest recorded use is from a letter written by the diplomat Sir Thomas Elyot in 1531: “either by the acte of the senate, or by the peoples suffrage.”

A few years later, “suffrage” was being used to mean “the action or an act of casting a vote or votes; election by voting.” The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a treatise by John Aylmer, Bishop of London, in 1559: “to be chosen by lotte, or suffrage.”

The modern meaning of “suffrage” emerged later in the same century. The OED defines it as “the right, privilege, or responsibility of voting in political elections.”

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest example: “Some … were onely admitted into the Citie without suffrage, and for honours sake called Citizens.” (From The Counsellor, a 1598 translation of a political work written in Latin by a Polish bishop, Wawrzyniec Goślicki.)

The OED’s most recent citation is from the South African newspaper Business Day (March 3, 2016): “The women of Saudi Arabia voted for the first time, making the Vatican City the last state on earth in which women do not enjoy any form of suffrage.” [Note: The writer overlooks countries that do not allow elections at all.]

That brings us to the phrases “woman suffrage” and “women’s suffrage,” both dating from the 19th century and defined in the OED as “the right of women to vote in political elections.”

First on the scene was “woman suffrage,” according to OED citations. The earliest example is from a British newspaper:

“Give us the ‘People’s Charter,’ and then if found necessary he would be quite willing to go into the question of Woman Suffrage” (The Northern Star, Leeds, Oct. 24, 1846). The People’s Charter, cornerstone of the Chartist movement, was a manifesto aimed at giving working-class men the right to vote and to stand for election whether they owned property or not.

The first sighting of “women’s suffrage” is from another British newspaper: “A branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage” (The Times, London, May 11, 1868).

Now for a trick question: Which nation, the US or the UK, was first to give women the right to vote?

“In the United Kingdom,” the OED says, “the Representation of the People Act 1918 extended the franchise to women aged 30 and over who met certain property ownership qualifications, and all men over 21 regardless of property ownership. In 1928, the Equal Franchise Act conferred voting rights on all women on equal terms to men.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, “sex-based restriction of voting rights was prohibited in 1920, with the ratification of the 19th amendment to the constitution.”

So Britain first gave women limited voting rights, but the US first gave them full voting rights.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Writing

When ‘next’ is really ‘last’

Q: Seen in the NY Times the other day: “And then there are the voice-overs, each more overwrought than the next.” Isn’t it supposed to be “each more overwrought than the last”? I see this a lot these days.

A: Yes, we’ve noticed this usage too. That dance critic, in reviewing a Netflix series about a fictional ballet school, should have written “than the last,” not “than the next.” She meant that each successive voice-over was more overwrought than the previous one, but she ended up saying the opposite.

Of course, no reader would misunderstand her. Our minds tend to make allowances for small lapses in logic, especially with a familiar idiomatic usage like “each more [better, larger, etc.] than the last.” When someone mistakenly uses “next” instead of “last,” we may not even notice the error, simply because our brains have translated and moved on.

This particular lapse is fairly common, not just in ordinary speech but in writing that’s been edited for publication. Here’s an example from speech: “The wild card is that every day is crazier than the next, and there is no roadmap here” (a banking executive on CNBC, March 17, 2020).

And here’s one from a scientific paper on reproductive patterns of steelhead trout: “For males and females, we found that each subsequent age class is both longer and heavier than the next.” (Graphs and tables show the opposite). From “Life History Variation Is Maintained by Fitness Trade-offs and Negative Frequency-Dependent Selection,” by Mark R. Christie et al., in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 24, 2018.

Several years ago a contributor to the Language Log reduced this problem to a formula: “Each one was more [adjective] than the next.” As he explained, “The speaker means that the phenomenon was growing, but is saying that it was decreasing” (Feb. 24, 2011).

Of course this formula isn’t always wrong. A literal interpretation can be the right one if the phenomenon is lessening instead of growing. Here’s an example from a book: “the first time you taste a new gourmet entrée will always be slightly better than the next time” (The 8-Hour Diet, 2013, by Peter Moore and David Zinczenko).

And the formula can be correct if “next” doesn’t mean following in sequence, but instead describes a hypothetical someone who’s typical or average: “Harvard Business School kind of opened my eyes that no one’s really smarter than the next person” (Jon Peloton quoted in Time, May 26, 2020) … “I like data as much as, or probably more than, the next guy” (Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times, Sept. 7, 2020).

Used in that sense, “the next man” means “the average man” or “a typical person,” or “anybody else,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. This usage, which originated in the US in the mid-19th century, is found “only in comparisons,” the OED adds, and occurs “frequently in the formula as —— as the next man (also person, etc.) according to context.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Congregate or congregant care?

Q: Is health-care housing where lots of people live in close proximity “congregant” or “congregate” living? I see both terms used interchangeably, even within the same publication.

A: “Congregate” is overwhelmingly more popular than “congregant” as an adjective to describe group services or facilities for people, especially the elderly, who need supportive care. And it’s the only one of the two usages included in the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

American Heritage, for example, defines “congregate” as a verb meaning “to bring or come together in a group,” and as an adjective meaning “involving a group: congregate living facilities for senior citizens.” It defines “congregant” solely as a noun for “one who congregates, especially a member of a group of people gathered for religious worship.”

Collins,, Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Webster’s New World have similar definitions. Lexico has similar definitions in its American English version but doesn’t include “congregate” as an adjective in its British version. Cambridge, Longman, and Macmillan don’t have either the noun “congregant” or the adjective “congregate.”

In the News on the Web corpus, a database from articles in newspapers and magazines on the Internet, the “congregate” usage is significantly more popular than the one with “congregant.”

Here are the results of some recent searches: “congregate living,” 820 examples; “congregant living,” 35; “congregate care,” 579; “congregant care,” 18; “congregate housing,” 95; “congregant housing,” 0.

In searches with Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books, “congregant living” barely registered, while “congregant care” and “congregant housing” didn’t show up at all.

As for the etymology, both “congregate” and “congregant” are derived from congregare, classical Latin for to collect together into a flock or company, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Congregate,” the older of the two English words, showed up around 1400 as a verb meaning to collect or gather things together. In the 1500s, it took on the modern sense of to gather together into a group of people.

The adjective, which is derived from congregatus, past participle of congregare, appeared soon after the verb in this OED citation: “These men somme tyme congregate schalle goe furthe” (from an early 15th-century translation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, a 14th-century Latin work of history and theology).

The latecomer, “congregant,” is derived from congregantem, present participle of congregare. It showed up in the late 19th century as a noun that Oxford defines as “one of those who congregate anywhere; a member of a congregation; esp. a member of a Jewish congregation.”

We’ve expanded the dictionary’s first example: “The Bevis Marks synagogue, the only building of genuine historical interest in England which the Jews can boast, is at the present moment threatened with destruction at the hands of a portion of its own governing body, to the dismay of the majority of its congregants and of the community in general” (The Pall Mall Gazette, London, March 24, 1886).

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t have an entry for “congregant” used as an adjective. As far as we can tell from a cursory search, the usage showed up in the 20th century, perhaps originally as an eggcorn, a word or phrase substitution like “egg corn” for “acorn.”

Here’s an example from a few decades ago: “Joan is a young woman who does considerable work with older people and serves on the board of a congregant housing facility for the elderly” (from Ministry of the Laity, 1986, by James Desmond Anderson and Ezra Earl Jones).

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Can ‘were’ mean ‘would be’?

Q: I’m curious about W. Somerset Maugham’s use of “were” for “would be” in this passage: “I am eager to know if you still devote upon the ungrateful arts talents which were more profitably employed upon haberdashery.” I find the usage neat, though I suspect that it’s now an archaism.

A: The use of “were” in place of “would be” (as in “He were better dead” instead of “He would be better dead”) was outdated even in Maugham’s youth, when he wrote that sentence.

This “were” is a subjunctive form of the verb “be,” but it’s a particular subjunctive use that’s found only in older writing that would now be considered mannered and formal. (Some subjunctive uses of “were” are alive and well, as we’ve written previously.)

The passage you’re asking about is from The Magician, a Maugham novel written in 1907 and set in fin-de-siècle Paris. Fifty years later, in his Fragment of an Autobiography, he called the writing “turgid” and said he “must have been impressed by the écriture artiste [artistic writing] of the French writers of the time” and had “unwisely sought to imitate them.”

[By the way, as one reader has observed, the “were” in the passage could correctly be read as the simple past tense (not the subjunctive) if the artist being addressed had ever been a haberdasher. But that’s not the case (we read a good part of the novel to make sure). The speaker, a nasty and pompous man, uses “were” subjunctively to say haberdashery would have been a better career choice.]

As we said, even when Maugham wrote the novel that use of “were” was excessively formal. In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), Henry W. Fowler mentions the construction only briefly, and as something to avoid.

He cites these examples (the recommended uses in brackets are his): “it were [would be] better to leave the sculpture galleries empty” … “It were [would be] futile to attempt to deprive it of its real meaning.”

Fowler says there’s “nothing incorrect” in those examples, but the subjunctive uses “diffuse an atmosphere of dullness & formalism over the writing.”

The subject is treated even more briefly in the second edition (1965) of Fowler’s work, and is dropped altogether from the third (1996) and fourth (2015). Modern comprehensive grammars of English don’t mention it either. So we can safely call it archaic.

Here are some random examples from writings of the past:

“It were lost sorrow to wail one that’s lost.” (Shakespeare, King Richard III, circa 1593.)

“It were much better for your Lordship not to have vowed at all, then [than] not to perform after you have vowed.” (Miracles Not Ceas’d, a religious tract written anonymously by Sir Kenelm Digby, 1663.)

“From one worthy action, it were credulity, not charity, to conclude a person to be free from all vice.” (Hugh Blair, a minister and professor of rhetoric at the University of Edinburgh. From the 5th edition of his Sermons, 1780.)

“ ‘It were different,’ continued the father, after a pause, and in a more resolute tone, ‘if I had some independence, however small, to count on.’ ” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, My Novel: Or, Varieties in English Life, 1853.)

Fowler included the use of “were” for “would be” among subjunctive “survivals,” forms that are no longer “alive” or natural in speech, and added this comment:

“Subjunctives met with today, outside the few truly living uses, are either deliberate revivals by poets for legitimate enough archaic effect, or antiquated survivals as in pretentious journalism, infecting their context with dullness, or new arrivals possible only in an age to which the grammar of the subjunctive is not natural but artificial.” (We added the italics for emphasis. The subjunctives recognized as “living” in Fowler’s time are still alive today.)

[Note: This post was updated on March 5, 2021.]

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Q: When did people start using “woah” instead of “whoa”? Is this just a misspelling or is there more to it?

A: The usual spelling now is “whoa,” but several of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult accept “woah” as a variant or less common version. In fact, the word has been spelled all sorts of ways since it showed up in English in the 15th century as a variant of an older interjection, “ho.”

Three of the standard dictionaries (Collins,, and Lexico) list “woah” as a variant spelling of “whoa.” Meriam-Webster, which doesn’t as of now include “woah” as a variant, has an interesting “Words We’re Watching” article entitled “Is it time to accept ‘woah’ as an acceptable spelling of ‘whoa’?”

M-W’s answer: “Woah is not yet in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as an official spelling variant of whoa, but its usage has increased dramatically in the current century. ‘Whoa’ is still much more common however, so only time will tell if this spelling variant is accepted.”

Our own search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books, shows that as of 2019 “whoa” was overwhelmingly more popular than “woah.”

Both spellings have the same pronunciation (rhymes with “woe”), though sometimes the “h” is aspirated at the beginning of the word. The length and emphasis of the pronunciation varies, depending on the way the word is used—to express surprise, wonder, interest, a call to halt, and so on.

How do the lexicographers at a dictionary decide on an acceptable spelling?

As Merriam-Webster explains, “The spelling variants we include in our dictionaries are, like the words and their definitions, based on evidence, and primarily on evidence as found in published, edited text. It’s not that the language as it’s used outside of published, edited text is less effective in communicating; it’s that looking at the language as it’s used in published, edited text provides a scope for our work that is both useful to our readers and possible for our lexicographers.”

“We can’t scan the Facebook threads of millions of speakers of English for variant spellings,” the dictionary adds, “and most of you likely care more about whether a particular spelling has met the editorial standards of the likes of Forbes and The Atlantic than those of your cousin Steve. Is a particular spelling regarded as an error by the people whose jobs it is to consider such things? That’s the question we answer.”

As for the etymology, when the word “ho,” ancestor of “whoa,” showed up in the early 14th century, it was “an exclamation expressing, according to intonation, surprise, admiration, exultation (often ironical), triumph, taunting,” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

The earliest OED citation, dated at sometime before 1325, is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem: “ ‘Ho!’ all þan cun þai cri, ‘Qua herd euer sua gret ferli’ ” (“ ‘Ho!’ all then could cry, ‘Who ever heard of so great a wonder’ ”).

By the late 14th century, the interjection “ho” was being used as “a call to stop or to cease what one is doing.” Here’s the earliest OED citation: “Of golde he shulde such plente [plenty] / Receive, till he saide ho.” From Confessio Amantis (“The Lover’s Confession,” 1390), a long poem by John Gower.

And by the early 15th century, “ho” was also “an exclamation to attract attention.” The first OED citation is from “London Lickpenny” (circa 1430), a poem by John Lydgate: “Then hyed I me to Belyngsgate; / And one cryed, ‘hoo! go we hence!’ ”

In the early 19th century, “ho” was first used in writing as “a call to an animal to stop or stand still.” The earliest Oxford example, which we’ve expanded, is from An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), by Noah Webster: “HO, exclam. A word used by teamsters, to stop their teams. … This word is pronounced also whō, or hwō.”

The OED says “whoa” emerged as a “variant of ho.” When “whoa” showed up in Middle English (originally spelled “whoo”), it was a command to either a person or an animal to stop.

In the earliest OED example, recorded around 1467, King Edward IV halts a joust in London when it becomes too violent: “Then the Kyng perceyvyng the cruell assaile, cast his staff, and with high voice, cried, Whoo!” (cited in Excerpta Historica, 1831, by Samuel Bentley).

Over the next few hundred years, according to Oxford citations, the word was spelled “whoo,” “who,” “whoe,” and “whoh” before “whoa” appeared at the beginning of the 19th century: “I could na bide it,—groaned so desperately.—Whoa! whoa! whoa! Jolly” (from an anonymous novel, The Knight and Mason, 1801).

By the end of the 19th century, the OED notes, “whoa” was being “used as a general interjection to command attention or express that one is surprised, impressed, interested, etc.” The dictionary’s first citation is from the lyrics of “Georgia Rabbit,” an anonymous Southern country song:

Georgia Rabbit, whoa, whoa!
Georgia Rabbit, whoa!
Stole my lover, whoa! whoa!
Stole my lover, whoa!

Gwine to git nudder one, whoa, whoa!
Gwine to git nudder one, whoa!
Jes’ like t’udder one, whoa, whoa!
Jes’ like t’udder one, whoa!

As for the “woah” spelling, it’s been around since at least the 18th century, according to OED citations. The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is said to describe a 1762 incident in Bristol, England, in which a demon purportedly used the term when asked if it were a witch:

“Mrs. Elmes and the children heard it cry out, ‘Jee, woah,’ as waggoners used to say in driving horses.” From A Narrative of Some Extraordinary Things That Happened to Mr. Richard Giles’s Children (1800), by Henry Durbin. The event is also described in a Jan. 23, 1762, entry in The Diary of William Dyer: Bristol in 1762, edited by Jonathan Barry in 2012 for the Bristol Record Society.

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