Journal Express, Knoxville, IA

December 31, 2013

The Internet's most variously spelled word

By Matthew J.X. Malady
Slate.com

— This past summer, the "Today" show used its Twitter account to share some news about the birth of an unusually heavy child. Along with a link to its story about the immense infant, "Today" included for its more than 2 million followers this brief note: "Woah baby! 13-lb. 7-oz. baby delivered in Spain."

It was a typical "Today" show tweet — punchy, conversational, vanilla — but it caught the eye of New York magazine senior editor Dan Amira. Unmoved by word of a gigantic newborn, Amira — who recently left New York magazine for a job at "The Daily Show" — focused on something smaller (much smaller): the placement of an "h." In retweeting the message, Amira affixed a brief, pointed comment: "It's 'whoa.' "

He drove home the same point a week later when @HuffPostEdu tweeted a link accompanied by the sentence, "Whoah: Professors get bulletproof whiteboards." Political reporter Chris Cillizza heard from Amira when he decided to go with "WHOAH" in a tweet about the unusually early availability of pumpkin spice latte this year, and Time's Zeke Miller got called out by Amira on two different occasions during four weeks of whoa tweets. Although he had moved on to other topics by September, Amira's half-prescriptivist, half-hilarious crusade shone light on a notable fact about 2013: It was the year of everybody spelling "whoa" a zillion different ways.

Without question, this has been an especially whoa-full year. But why? "Whoa" is hardly a new word; it dates back to at least the early 17th century. At that time it was used mostly in shouted form and was intended to garner the attention of someone in the distance. Around the the mid-1800s, people began using "whoa" to halt forward-moving horses, and by the latter half of the 20th century it had morphed into an expression for conveying alarm, surprise, or advanced interest. (Messrs. Bill and Ted solidified the strength of this usage in 1989, Joey Lawrence sealed the deal during the '90s, and Keanu Reeves reappeared without Bill S. Preston, Esq. to help usher the word into the new millennium via "The Matrix.")

The expression is now exceedingly common, and in 2013 the continuing ascension of its usage overlapped with the advancing popularity of social media to create an unstoppable force of media momentum. With so many people using the word on Facebook, Twitter and other networks that drive Web traffic these days, it appears as though editors and writers this year felt they had little choice but to join the parade. By using "whoa" in headlines, as the opening word of published articles, and pretty much everywhere else online, they seemed to be hoping that readers would see it and think: "Hey, what comes next must be really exciting, because there's that same 'whoa!' all my friends use on Twitter when interesting and important things happen." But people were so busy writing that there was no time, apparently, to agree on how we all should be spelling it.

Merriam-Webster, a host of style guides, 238 likers of the Facebook page "It's 'Whoa' not 'Woah,' " and rapper Earl Sweatshirt all support Amira's take on the proper and preferred contemporary spelling of "whoa." But don't tell that to hundreds and hundreds of headline writers who worked on articles published in 2013. In January, for instance, the Daily Mirror ran a story online titled "Woah! Rochelle Wiseman's Baby Bump Pops Up Out of Nowhere." Wonkette posted a story and video accompanied by "Woah: Fox & Friends Nearly (Accidentally?) Practiced a Tiny Smidgen of Journalism." (As if to prove that "woah" headlines transcend all party lines and political ideologies, Glenn Beck's the Blaze, in late autumn, trotted out "Woah: America's Youngest Voters Have Turned on Obama in a Big Way.") Just a few weeks ago, the Apple news website Cult of Mac ran with "Woah! Check Out the Beautiful Curved Front at Apple's Refurbished Stonestown Store."

There are scores of similar headlines where those came from. (Not to mention the extensive body-copy, sentence-level usage of "woah" that occurred online this year among the approximately 5,220,000 hits that result from a Google search on that spelling of the word.) And we can't forget the spelling and grammar free-for-all that is the blogosphere, or the slapdash sentences that show up on message boards, or the legions of Craigslist posters who used "woah" to jazz up apartment listings during this calendar year. For those looking to own some "woah" in 2013, there was tons of woah-emblazoned Zazzle junk for sale, and a marijuana leaf-pattern "Woah Dude 2.0" dress is available right now on Amazon for $26.

But where "woah" with the "h" at the end really blew up this year was on social media. Typing the hashtag "#woah" into the search box on Twitter at any given moment results in something on the order of 50 tweets an hour. Remove the number sign from the front of "woah" and the result is more like 50 tweets a minute. ("Woah he got pushed," "Woah, where did my highlighter go?" and "WOAH! Heat wave! 34 degrees!" just scrolled by on my computer screen.) Even putting aside Twitter, there were thousands of Instagram and Vine and Tumblr posts tagged with "woah" in 2013.

And if you were thinking you could perhaps quarantine yourself so as to preclude exposure to the Today show-style "woah" by avoiding all forms of social media and, say, spending some time relaxing in front of the TV, think again. This month, the History channel began airing an episode of its popular series Pawn Stars under the title, "Woah Pilgrim."

The sheer breadth and depth of woah-filtration during 2013 surely exists as a source of frustration for Dan Amira. But you know who else is none too pleased with all these four-letter, "h"-ending woahs being tossed around?

"Whoah" people, that's who!

So, the members of Midnight Oil, and Chris Cillizza, and the person at BBC America who came up with the headline "Status WHOAH!" for a piece about a mincemeat ad, they're all in that crew. Joining them are the individual who maintains a Pinterest food page with the heading "Whoah!!!," thousands of mostly unknown people who posted silly videos on YouTube, and lots of other individuals who enjoy adding h's to the ends of things.

There's good news and bad news for those in the "whoah" camp. Earlier this month, just in time for the holiday shopping season, KBOI TV out of Boise, Idaho, alerted visitors to the station's website about a break at the gas pump like so: "Whoah! Gas prices in Kuna drop below $3 a gallon." News from the U.K. morning newspaper Metro in early August about the laundry habits of bachelors provided less cause for celebration: "Whoah! Single Men Wash Their Sheets 'Four Times a Year.' "

All things considered, it's been a banner year for "whoa," no matter how you prefer to spell it. In fact, the word hasn't seen this level of media saturation and pop cultural prominence since 2000, when rapper Black Rob released a rugged, very un-PC and not-safe-for-work, pre-Earl Sweatshirt club banger called "Whoa!" All the spellings, taken together, combined to form a Voltron-type superword that was pervasive in our communications this year. Sure, if you want to be all Amira about it, you could point out that "whoa" with the "h" following the "w" and an "a" at the end was once again the version that was most commonly used — due largely to the stamp of approval that goes along with being sanctioned by various books held in high regard. But there's nothing particularly new about the word spelled that way showing up all over the place (with its trusty sidekick, the exclamation point). This year in whoa-ness was noteworthy instead because it was a magical and ridiculous time when more people than ever were spelling this goofy word in more ways than ever.

And for those of you who haven't fully experienced or appreciated the extent to which the spelling of "whoa" was all over the place this year, don't fret. There are still a few days left to enjoy the very best of what this expression has to offer. If you're willing to spend a little time Googling, or playing around on social media, you'll be blown away by the zany whoa-related things you find. In fact, here's an idea that will allow you to see just how far afield things have gotten. Before the clock strikes midnight on Wednesday, try this fun experiment: Sign in to Twitter and run a search on the craziest of all crazy attempted-whoa spellings, whao.

Surely no one uses that version. People may type "woah" or "whoah" sometimes out of habit, or for lack of knowledge about the preferred spelling, but no one writes "whao" instead of "whoa" right?

Just three minutes before I typed this, someone tweeted "WHAO!! Target's CEO Refuses to Sell Beyoncé's New Album." A few hours earlier, a different Twitter user noted, "Whao, it's 1:40 already." Earlier in the day, someone tweeted, "Whao . . What are you talking about?" So, yeah, that one's out there, too. Is it just a typo, rather than a deliberate spelling? Maybe. But in this highly textual age, the typos of today can become the variant spellings of the future.

So give the "whao" search a shot when you have a second and let me know in the comments if you come across anything especially ridiculous.

We'll leave the "whaoh" searches for next year.

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Malady is a writer and editor living in Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.