A Word, Please
Woah, whoah or whoa?
When I was a kid, I had a pony. I don’t mention that a lot. People get the wrong impression: pampered rich girl prancing around a snooty stable on an English saddle.
Not even close.
My sister’s and my ponies were obtained in a swap for some used CB radios (remember those, good buddy?). In hindsight, I suspect the ponies were procured as leverage in an abusive marriage. We couldn’t afford to keep them in a stable. We kept Mouse, my black Shetland pony, and Penny, my sister’s pinto, on a couple of acres of fenced-in central Florida land whose owner charged $30 a month for the privilege. We couldn’t afford saddles. We rode bareback, usually in shorts and often barefoot. We were filthy all the time, legs crusted with a paste of dirt and dried horse sweat, but we were away from that tumultuous household for large chunks of the day as we explored woods and residential areas and sometimes even galloped across Clearwater’s busy Highway 19.
In typical 8-year-old-girl fashion, I became obsessed with horses. I found a trove of horse stories in my school library and dived head first into “Old Bones the Wonder Horse” by Mildred Mastin Pace and “The Golden Mare” by William Corbin.
By the time I was 9, I’d seen the word “whoa” in print so many times it was unfathomable that anyone might spell this horse command differently. Then, about a year ago, I noticed a stranger on social media responding to a news story with “woah.”
Not long after, I saw this spelling again. Then, just a few days before this writing, I saw a tweet from Atlantic magazine editor David Frum responding to a news item with (get this): “whoah.”
I assumed that the inability to spell “whoa” was a new phenomenon. It was definitely new to me. Had I come across “woah” or “whoah” in the past, I would have noticed. I’m sure of it.
But a little grown-up research shows that these spellings are not new. Far from it.
A Google search for the word “woah” turns up quite a few links to language experts talking about how to spell “whoa.” Most informative is a 2012 recording of the NPR radio show “A Way with Words,” in which hosts Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette field a call from a listener who had noticed a proliferation of the spellings “whoah” and “woah.” The listener, Sarah, said she worked in publishing and was seeing these nonstandard spellings regularly in emails from high-level editors.
As Barrett and Barnette pointed out, “whoa” comes from Middle English, first appearing sometime in the 15th century. It went through a number of spellings, most notably “who,” which was pronounced like “whoa” and not like today’s pronoun “who.” It has also been spelled “ho,” which may be its earliest form. And, yes, the word has a connection to horses, oxen and other livestock. Then as now, “whoa” means “stop.” It has also become popular as an exclamation similar to “Stop the presses” or even “wow.”
Barrett noted that the “woah” spelling is slightly more common in the U.K. than it is in the U.S. But that, along with “whoah,” it crops up throughout the English-speaking world and has been doing so for many years. An explosion of informal writing, accelerated by the Internet and social media, is fueling the popularity of these alternative spellings. But this newfound popularity hasn’t earned them much respect.
The correct spelling, according to major dictionaries, is “whoa.” Merriam-Webster’s doesn’t mention “woah” or “whoah” at all. Webster’s New World College Dictionary does, calling “woah” a misspelling and “whoah” an alternative spelling, which is a slightly gentler way of saying don’t use it. Use “whoa” instead.
June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.