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Whoa! No, really, W-H-O-A.
July 12, 2010 4:24 PM   Subscribe

Do internet-people spell "whoa" incorrectly on purpose (as "woah"), in the same way people use "teh" and "!!!1!!1" - fake typos used to imply something?

That's really it - I see "woah" way more now that I see "whoa" and it's driving me batty. Is it on purpose (for the most part)?

What do you even call that, when you use "teh" in a post/comment online....?

(Sidenote - I saw "woah" on an electronic, public, magnetic poetry board at SeaTac airport and almost threw a chair at it, ugh, Microsoft!)
posted by tristeza to Writing & Language (56 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Are you sure "whoa" is a proper word such that you could actually say it's spelled incorrectly?
posted by xmutex at 4:26 PM on July 12, 2010 [5 favorites]


The word "whoa" is in my personal email, and people inadvertently misspell it all the time--it's a mistake, not an affectation, just like other common mistakes like "alot" and "yea."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:26 PM on July 12, 2010


I don't know, I see a mix of both of them. I think it's less a matter of it being internetty and more a matter of personal preference.
posted by rachaelfaith at 4:27 PM on July 12, 2010


I don't know if I'm an Internet Person but I've always spelled it "whoah" because I thought that's how it's spelled. Thought that till just this very moment.
posted by Neofelis at 4:28 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's such a common misspelling, I suspect you're seeing a change in the language actually happening in real time! Count yourself lucky. You probably missed the Great Vowel Shift.
posted by grumblebee at 4:30 PM on July 12, 2010 [5 favorites]


i don't view it as a misspelling - i mean, it's noise you make with your mouth, not a defined word like cat or dog, so people are going to disagree about how those sounds come out, no?
posted by nadawi at 4:30 PM on July 12, 2010


I'm pretty sure it's a misspelling, not a "thing" -- I remember correcting someone on it over 10 years ago and they didn't believe me.
posted by brainmouse at 4:30 PM on July 12, 2010


What do you even call that, when you use "teh" in a post/comment online....?

Teh is an Internet slang neologism.
posted by new brand day at 4:31 PM on July 12, 2010


When people I know use it, they are not using leetspeek (they are not internetty people like that). That is just how they spell it.
posted by unknowncommand at 4:31 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


hasn't the word morphed from something you say to your horses to something you say if you're keneau reeves and in the matrix?
If so, makes sense the spelling would changing.
posted by angrycat at 4:32 PM on July 12, 2010


(For those that claim that there's no way to misspell it, Merriam Webster seems to disagree--and dates the etymological history of the word to the fifteenth century!)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:32 PM on July 12, 2010 [11 favorites]


I vote stupidity. It shows up with "persay" [per se] and "wa-lah" [voila].

(Maybe the increased popularity of the name "Noah" can take a smidgen of blame?)
posted by kmennie at 4:34 PM on July 12, 2010 [13 favorites]


I'm with the misspelling crowd. I see 'yeah' misspelled as 'yea' a lot too. As in, "Oh, yea they do!"
posted by esome at 4:37 PM on July 12, 2010


I used to see primarily British people spelling it as 'woah'. Now it seems to be universal.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 4:37 PM on July 12, 2010


I always thought they were meant to be two different words.

I always think of "whoa" like "whoa, horsey" or "whoa there, pardner" whereas "woah" is more Joey on Blossom or Neo in the Matrix (depending on context).

For the record, Firefox thinks "woah" is spelled wrong.
posted by madajb at 4:39 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


I recently saw "W'oh!" and that made me think it was cute for a second and a half. (My personal wordhate is directed at 'welp', and I don't understand your sidenote at all.)
posted by sageleaf at 4:41 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Whenever I see "woah" I hear it in the voice of Keanu in "The Matrix." I always thought that spelling was invented as a tribute to his particular intonation, but I have no evidence to support this.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:44 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


People spell informal slang words like that the way they learned to spell them, and they learned to spell them after seeing them used by other internet users or by trying to sound the words out. In addition to yeah/yay/yea, as mentioned above, there's oops/whoops. "Whoops," to me, are vocalized yelps. But some people use 'whoops' to mean "uh-oh," because a lot of people pronounce the word with that initial W sound, and 'wh' is a more common way to start the word than 'wo' would be.

They're common words, but not really proper words, and their usage in writing is pretty much a result of our increased internet usage, meaning they're new enough to us in print that things haven't really normalized yet.

That said, the way I spell them ('yeah', short for 'yes'; 'yay' to indicate glee; 'whoa' to indicate shock; and 'oops' to indicate fuckuppery) is correct.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:45 PM on July 12, 2010


I saw "woah" as well as "wo!" on text based BBS systems 20 years ago. So, however it may have since evolved, it started as stupidity.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:49 PM on July 12, 2010


When I read that spelling I subconsciously think of Keanu Reeves and how he exhales the word.
posted by rhizome at 4:55 PM on July 12, 2010


Are you sure "whoa" is a proper word such that you could actually say it's spelled incorrectly?

it's noise you make with your mouth, not a defined word like cat or dog, so people are going to disagree about how those sounds come out, no?

Just because it's informal in usage doesn't mean it's not a word, and doesn't mean there is no convention for its spelling.

If you insist on prescriptivism, "whoa" is in dictionaries—even abridged ones—and has a definition, an etymology, and a centuries-old pedigree. ("Woah" isn't.)

That leads me to view "woah" as a misspelling—though some linguists (I'm not one) might be more forgiving, and treat it as a non-standard variant spelling.

I'm with kmennie, though—I only see this spelling among people who are cavalier with grammar and orthography in general. "Wierd" isn't a variant spelling of "weird"; it's simply incorrect. I put "woah" in the same category, and I've never suspected any deliberate motive for its use.

(And don't even get me started on "wallah" [for "voilà"]. That shit makes me want to strangle people with their own illiteracy. Somehow.)
posted by ixohoxi at 4:56 PM on July 12, 2010 [10 favorites]


I spell it "woah," and I do so intentionally (it feels more "right" - seconding the comment that "whoa" reminds me of horses, and generally a comment or topic that elicits such an expression from me has nothing to do with horses. Most of the time). Yes, I know it's spelled differently in the dictionary, but to me this is like arguing about what the correct way of typing expressions of laughter ought to be - "haha!" or "hehe! People aren't using Internet-speak. They simply have a different way of putting expressions, emotions, and sounds to writing.
posted by raztaj at 4:57 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, how about that. It's spelled "whoa". I had no idea.

I guess I always thought it was an improvised onomatopoeia, and figured that if there is a bit of an h sound in there it should come at the end, and not after the w. But, for me anyway, it was not intentional. I'll try to do better.
posted by dirtdirt at 4:58 PM on July 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


i don't really care that it shows up in the dictionary. it's still just an exclamation and is no where near on par with misspelling voila, weird, and per se.
posted by nadawi at 4:59 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Dood. Spelling variation, conventionalized and/or stylistic. Like, thru/through, tho/though, tuff/tough...in today's times, there's not a whole lot of sense to why these three words should continue to be spelled with o-u-g-h, pronounced three different ways. Or yeah, yay, yah, yea. You, U, yous, y'all, youts, yinz. Whoops, oops, woops. Or um, umm, uhm, uh, ah, ahh. Ha, hah, haha, heh. Spelling (and pronunciation) variation is specially common for interjections, expressions, or discourse markers.

Personally, I like the subtle differences that are afforded when I can creatively choose which form of whoa/woah I want to use. The first seems a bit traditional (its been conventionalized longer) and less emphatic than the latter, which reads to me more like 'woa-uh'. Same is true for the other pairs...you get slightly different senses on yeah vs. yay vs. yah vs. yea. Some of these spelling/senses are local to certain communities, some have longer histories (making them less noticeable or marked, especially as compared to the newer spellings which have a sense of creativity, newness or trendiness), and some are reminiscent of other sounds or words, also lending to a different semantic coloring. It's really cool that language can do this. It's part of what allows you to hear a 'voice' to the things we read. It gives our text character and deeper meaning. Variation is awesome.
posted by iamkimiam at 5:06 PM on July 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm with everyone else saying it's impossible to misspell a non-word. I mean, I probably once would've had a strong opinion about this, but then I learned about the differences between prescriptivism and descriptivism, and realized that descriptivists are a lot less cranky in general, and as a whole happier people who are more fun to be around. And at that moment I decided I just wasn't going to care anymore, because it's simply not worth the effort. People are going to spell things however they spell things, and I'm not making the world a better place by getting upset about it. I still try to spell most words in acceptable ways, not out of any sense of obligation toward being "correct," but simply because I want to be understood.

And I'm generally understood whether I say "whoa" or "whoa," so... whatevs.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 5:09 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


"whoa" reminds me of horses, and generally a comment or topic that elicits such an expression from me has nothing to do with horses

I've always assumed that the Keanu Reeves usage of "whoa" derives from the horse-related usage. It's a way of saying, "Hold on, I need a minute to assimilate the unbelievable thing I just saw/heard."
posted by twirlip at 5:10 PM on July 12, 2010


...whether I say "whoa" or "whoa"...

Or even "woah." Woe.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 5:11 PM on July 12, 2010


People are thinking of other interjections like "ah," "oh," and maybe "eh," which all end with "[vowel]-h." The analogy to "Ah!" is especially strong because they both have an "a" and there's some overlap in meaning with "Whoa!" So they change it to "woah" because it looks better to see the "ah" at the end (also, a word with two vowels hanging off at the end looks a bit naked).
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:11 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, if "woah" is spelled wrong, then I've been spelling it wrong for a long time. From before I was on the internet, even. Probably because of how "yeah" is spelled.

Could this be a temporal/regional thing? I am like 37 and I grew up in Texas.
posted by 23skidoo at 5:14 PM on July 12, 2010


Whoa is certainly a "real" word like voilà, and we are watching its orthography change. The more you read something in one particular way, the more likely you are to spell it as you see it. See the use of it's/its.

Yeah and yea sound different in my head. One is the informal word for "yes" and one is "Yea, though I walk through the valley of darkness."

I understand that language changes, but I'm an editor and this shit drives me crazy.
posted by rtha at 5:22 PM on July 12, 2010 [11 favorites]


i don't really care that it shows up in the dictionary. it's still just an exclamation and is no where near on par with misspelling voila, weird, and per se.

What about "nowhere"?
posted by ixohoxi at 5:35 PM on July 12, 2010


If you are making the sound Tintin's dog Snowy makes, "woah" is the correct spelling.
posted by Aquaman at 5:35 PM on July 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


I have noticed the same thing, and I think it's become much more prevalent in the last five years or so. The people I see using "woah" (as well as "whoah") are generally pretty literate, so it's not just that they can't spell anything. I'm kind of at a loss for an explanation.

There is a general category of "I know there must be an h in here somewhere" spelling mistakes ('Ghandi', 'bahn mi', 'Kaaaaaahn!') and maybe this belongs to that category as well. It doesn't feel like someone would just willy-nilly throw an h in there unless they thought they had seen one before.
posted by dfan at 6:00 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Don't know where I got "valley of darkness." In fact, it's "valley of the shadow of death."

*slaps self on hand*
posted by rtha at 6:06 PM on July 12, 2010


dfan, that's an interesting point—the "h" in all of these cases is (more or less) silent, which leaves the writer with no phonetic clues to go on.

I wonder if there's a correlation with the way people learn spelling as grade-schoolers, or even in the home as toddlers. Those who are presented with a more phonics-based approach learn to reverse-engineer spelling from sounds—which is a poor approach for a language as rife with spelling exceptions as English. As you say, they know there's an "h" in there somewhere—because they've seen it in print at some point—but they've never picked up the habit of internalizing a new word's visual form, as well as its sound.

Pure speculation. I'd welcome English spelling reform, personally, but I don't think it will ever happen.
posted by ixohoxi at 6:16 PM on July 12, 2010


When I spell "whoa" as "woah," which I do sometimes, I am definitely going for a stupider / more Keanu-like tone (usually more Bill & Ted than Matrix) and I am doing it on purpose.
posted by furiousthought at 6:51 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


it's noise you make with your mouth, not a defined word like cat or dog, so people are going to disagree about how those sounds come out, no?

Well, thing is, even onomatopoeia often have accepted/more acceptable spellings. So it's "woof" and not "wuff" and "meow" but not "mrrrow" and "crash" but not "KRASSSSH!" or whatever. As someone who's taught languagey things, and plays with language in writing on a semiprofesh basis, I'd only go with a more idiosyncratic spelling if I want my reader to pay attention to specific inflection, or variations in sound, or whatnot. If you're sticking with an idiosyncratic spelling even when you know it's not the commonly accepted spelling, you should be aware that a good number of readers are going to be, at best, drawn out of their reading, and, at worst, might assume ignorance or special snowflakeyness on your part.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:53 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


I would argue that interjections have a much looser requirement for "correct" spelling. The definitions that I currently have access to for 'whoa' seem to mostly concentrate on the horse-y action, and not the word-as-interjection. Interjections are more transcriptions of sounds than words themselves, and therefore I think they should be given more leeway in terms of spelling.

People use an interjection like "Geez!" and they aren't misspelling "Jesus!". I use "Yay" and not "Yea" even though "Yay" doesn't show up in M-W either. I also use and see "he" vs. "heh" vs. "hehe" for different variations of conferring laughter over text.

So yes, it's on purpose, but it is not on purpose like "teh" is. People just think that "woah" more accurately represents the sound and meaning of the interjection they want to express than "whoa" does. It never even occurred to me that I should be worrying about correct spellings for interjections. All it's there to do is get across a point of heightened emotion.
posted by that girl at 7:01 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, and also the context is important. If it was a peer-reviewed paper or a professionally published article or somewhere where an editor was involved, then I can see the desire for standardization and matching the dictionary as best as possible. In chat rooms and blog posts and comments, it is much less important.
posted by that girl at 7:05 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


the "h" in all of these cases is (more or less) silent (ixohoxi)

This is a recent phonetic change. The "wh" phoneme (as in "when," also called a voiceless labial-velar fricative) has merged with the "w" phoneme (as in "want," also called a voiced labial-velar approximant). (You can listen to both sounds on this page which illustrates the International Phonetic Alphabet.) Historically, they were two different sounds (which is why we spell them differently.

I learned about "wh" vs. "w" by listening to someone read A Wrinkle in Time out loud and put a lot of emphasis on Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.

Fellow linguists, forgive me if I've screwed this up somehow. I'm no longer a practicing linguist, so this isn't fresh for me.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:16 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Specifically, there's a bit in A Wrinkle in Time when Mrs. Which is introduced where it is made clear that she is Mrs. Which, not Mrs. Witch.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:18 PM on July 12, 2010


Yup; I'm aware of the wine-whine merger. I'm from western Maryland, with Southern-ish parents, and the distinction is still very much present in my speech (see the map in the Wikipedia article).

I will never give up my /hw/. Never!
posted by ixohoxi at 7:40 PM on July 12, 2010


Aquaman: "If you are making the sound Tintin's dog Snowy makes, "woah" is the correct spelling."

That's where I first saw it. I distinctly remember being 13 years old and sitting in my bedroom, thinking about how to spell it, and picking "woah" because that's how Snowy says it!
posted by yaymukund at 7:48 PM on July 12, 2010


That article is just what I was looking for, ixohoxi! Thanks!
posted by ocherdraco at 8:05 PM on July 12, 2010


That said, the way I spell them ('yeah', short for 'yes'; 'yay' to indicate glee; 'whoa' to indicate shock; and 'oops' to indicate fuckuppery) is correct.

True 'dat.
posted by desuetude at 8:07 PM on July 12, 2010


[A few comments removed. The question is not "what other spellings annoy you", please don't wander.]
posted by cortex at 8:24 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]




(And don't even get me started on "wallah" [for "voilà"]. That shit makes me want to strangle people with their own illiteracy. Somehow.)

I've never seen "wallah" in the wild, but it's just charming. I feel like using it myself. I think I like it even better than "et viola."

I'm not even being sarcastic. There's something insanely cute and warm about "wallah."

Do internet-people spell "whoa" incorrectly on purpose (as "woah"), in the same way people use "teh" and "!!!1!!1" - fake typos used to imply something?

One thing that I'm not sure has been mentioned in the comments, although I've skimmed: Those crazy internet people often use common misspellings intentionally for "humorous" purposes. So even though "woah" isn't a recognizable part of that crazy internet speak in the same way that "teh" is, sometimes it may be used ironically.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:11 PM on July 12, 2010


If they're using "whoa / woah" in the "wow" sense, I'm wondering if the UK spelling is influenced by the French interjection "wouah". There ya go, they're actually being more cultivated, see? :o)

Also, re the slightly off-topic "wallah / voilà", as someone originally from the Pac NW, the pronunciation "wallah" makes me giggle because I knew people who used that and who would then get it confused with Walla Walla. Voilà voilà.
posted by fraula at 1:23 AM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I write "woah" because I'm English and that is how I pronounce it.

I don't write "whoa" because I'm not American.
posted by mr_silver at 2:14 AM on July 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Some of this may have something to do with the lolcat/lolspeak internet meme. Writing with particular grammar or orthographical errors adds something to your speech :)
posted by rom1 at 6:32 AM on July 13, 2010


Actually, I'd always assumed "woah" was a Keanu Reeves allusion.
posted by darth_tedious at 8:16 AM on July 13, 2010


Regarding "wallah", I always saw and read it as a Hindi word of magic used to invoke a task-specific genie, which not incidentally makes that the correct spelling and usage.

Knowing that some people just use the word as a phonetic rendering of "voilà" confuses and angers me.
posted by Aquaman at 9:20 PM on July 13, 2010


I vote stupidity. It shows up with "persay" [per se] and "wa-lah" [voila].

That's a bit like saying that 'color' and 'fetus' are spellings borne of stupidity. (Though your examples do tick me off, though. Homonyms seem to be really common errors in US English - maybe because flash cards are the common way of learning to read over there?)

As it's an interjection, or a vocalisation of a sound, surely the need for a standardised spelling is lessened? After all, Joyce spelt the noises of cat and duck 'mrkagno' and 'quark'.
posted by mippy at 8:33 AM on July 14, 2010


I vote stupidity. It shows up with "persay" [per se] and "wa-lah" [voila].

That's a bit like saying that 'color' and 'fetus' are spellings borne of stupidity. (Though your examples do tick me off, though. Homonyms seem to be really common errors in US English - maybe because flash cards are the common way of learning to read over there?)


I would say ignorance rather than stupidity in the case of "persay" or "wa-lah." These are spellings are used by people who are familiar with the words in spoken language but do not know that they are borrowed foreign terms, so they invent a phonetic transliteration.

Actually, it doesn't even matter that the words are Latin or French, except for the extra level of irony that these words were popularized in order to make the speaker sound more sophisticated by using foreign terms.

If I, to use an example from a recent thread, spelled awry "uhrye" because that's the only way I knew it, it wouldn't make uhrye an English word either.
posted by desuetude at 1:37 PM on July 14, 2010


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