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, Dictionary.com, 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.