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Whoa vs. Woah

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  • It is not only being misspelled in personal emails, I have been seeing it misspelled in movie subtitles, in lyrics on You Tube, etc. It has been driving me crazy, too. The word “whoa,” has been around forever. It’s what you say to stop a horse. It has always been spelled, “WHOA.” Now it seems the misspelling has found its way into general usage. What else will we start misspelling, simply because we are lazy and ignorant? It seems to me that it all has to do with the dumbing-down of America.

  • Actually, “Whoa” and “Woah” are separated in common usage only by about a decade, and both have been commonly used since the middle 1800s. Both are variants of “woa”, around since the 1840s. “Woa” itself is a variant of “Wo” from the late 1700s, deriving from the interjection (not pronoun) “Who”, which has been around since the middle 1400s. “Whoa” predates “Woah” by about ten years. But, (perhaps) interestingly, it depends on which English speaking country you live in as to which is considered “standard”. “Woah” is the favored spelling in the UK, while both spellings are in common use in the US. Both are correct, so use whichever you like. Or, if you want to get REALLY “correct” (and by that I mean ridiculously anal retentive), just go back to “Wo”. Apparently that’s when the “dumbing down” started.

  • What are your sources for all that, Brian? I find no evidence at all in corpora or dictionaries that “woah” is the favored spelling in the UK. Also, you’re confusing historical forms with modern forms, which is not really what the whoa vs. woah debate is about.

  • To elaborate: although the OED correctly lists those older forms as being the progenitors of the modern ones, they’re not the same words, exactly, and to suggest that the older forms are somehow more correct is a form of etymological fallacy.

    This discussion is about the modern standardized spelling of “whoa” vs. “woah.” The evidence shows that “woah” is rare (here’s a for-what-it’s-worth Google Ngrams comparison http://goo.gl/XjXO1), almost never appears in professionally edited texts, and is rarely included as a variant spelling in any non-historical English dictionary (I do see it in one edition of a Collins dictionary).

  • Woah is what I grew up with (in Alberta for what it’s worth), although I did recognize that a lot of people also write whoa. I always thought it was a USA phenomenon, much like color, favorite and other ‘u’-less misspellings (whoa and favourite being ‘correct’ because of their historical popularity/origin regardless of what this American spell check believes)

  • @ Somewhereelse, Ha, I love how you think “color, favorite and other ‘u’-less” words are “misspellings” just because they’re not spelled the way YOU “grew up with” them. I’ve always been fascinated by such linguistic arrogance.

  • @Somewherelse, One of my favourite things about ignorant people like you, is how you colour your “misspellings” as being correct, just because that’s how words are spelled where you reside, damn the rest of the world. And then, I have no doubt, that you will go on to accuse Americans of being “arrogant,” or “ignorant,” for doing the EXACT SAME THING. Thank you for providing irrefutable evidence, that arrogance & ignorance are not limited to a single country, and that they are in fact, world wide.

  • I believe the appearance (or resurgence) of this misspelling is due to the Internet and all the 12 year olds that get on here and know that there is a “a” and an “h” in there somewhere and are to lazy or ignorant to find the correct spelling and then they never grow out of it. I think “woah” should be pronounced as in “Noah”.

  • @JoeBeach
    I like your pronunciation suggestion, but your post pains me because of your use of an incorrect indefinite article and your confusion of a three-letter word with a two-letter word.
    So much for grammar and spelling in your world.

  • I just found this webpage while I was looking for crossword clues and I read the thread above. I have just one question, “What color is the dress?”

  • @JoeBeach
    Excuse me? I am frankly insulted by your views on twelve year-olds. It’s very judgmental. And ‘woah’ just looks really, really stupid if you read any books at all, because no professional person uses that spelling. It’s poop.

  • Very insightful podcast 😀 Aside from spelling issues, I also have another problem with the interjection ‘Whoa’ — it’s often confused with ‘Wow’. Both are different in tone and meaning. While ‘wow’ can be used express both sarcasm and surprise, ‘whoa’ can only express surprise. Watch this Youtube video and see what you think. I could be wrong.


  • I think Woah is a good thing.

    There’s two different meanings here and I think having different spellings is just fine.

    I use Whoa when I want to say: “Stop!” or “Hold up!”

    I use Woah for amazement, especially under-the-breath amazement. As a result the trailing H is justified due to the onomatopoeia.

    John Wayne says “Whoa!” Keanu Reeves says “Woah.” But there are distinct meanings here.

    Since clarity is important to me, I will continue to consciously use these two different words in their correct context.

  • I like how, in the first comment, Joanne complains about people spelling “whoa” differently from her. She calls them lazy and ignorant, and yet she didn’t bother to spell “YouTube” correctly.

  • I’m a reader, but somehow got sucked into ‘woah’ spelling at some point, and had a moment of confusion figuring out that it’s actually supposed to be spelled ‘whoa’. My brain sees the words as the same thing, similar to that trick where you can still read a paragraph of text if you fix the first and last letter but randomly jumble all the middle letters. (If you haven’t come across this, google it; it’s really cool!)

    Google N-gram is informative. It seems that while ‘whoa’ is well and truly the dominant spelling, there has been an neat uptick in woah in the last few years, and it looks like it’s still rising. This is in contrast to a different misspelling I just randomly chose, ‘susceptable’, which was on its way up in the ’80s, then crashed (but has only just dipped below the level of woah). I think the invention of word processor’s spell check features probably caused the crash of ‘susceptable’. As I type, I notice that Chrome’s spellchecker picks up ‘susceptable’ but doesn’t pick up ‘woah’.


  • Ooo, sorry to double post but I just had an idea. I’ve tried some other misspellings (e.g. fundemental), and I see the same shape – there’s an increase in the misspelling around the 50’s, it hits a peak around the 80’s then drops sharply. While I’m confident computer spellcheckers helped with the drop, I was wondering what might have caused the rise. I wonder if it was due to television? More people watching TV rather than reading recreationally? Just speculation.

    The reason I suspect ‘woah’ prevailed despite the invention of spellchecker programs, is that it seems like the sort of word that a spellchecker, particularly an early one, wouldn’t have in its dictionary. So, people might just ignore the red squiggly line underneath it, assuming without another thought, ‘this is a slang word that isn’t in the spellchecker’s dictionary, but it doesn’t look wrong’.

  • I’m English (ie what Americans call British) and an avid reader, I arrived on this site today because I noticed the “whoa” spelling on Facebook and had no recollection of EVER seeing it before. I Googled “whoa v. woah” and here I am!
    I’m very glad I found this site. (I’m now just a little bit in love with Brian Yagel.)

    I can only think that that, since “whoa” is clearly the most common spelling in many parts of the U.S., it simply isn’t a word that is common in the kind of books I read – which seems unlikley, since I’ve read American novels with horses in them – or that if I’ve seen it written down I’ve assumed that it was one of those words like “eeeeeugghch” where you are attempting to transcribe a sound phonetically, so the spelling rules go out the window (or “out OF the window” as we say in England).

    I do value standardised spelling (thank you Dr Johnson). It’s a real pleasure to hear Shakespeare spoken aloud or to read him accurately rendered in modern spelling. Trying to read him in the original spelling is tortuous.

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