Why Do We Say Wow?

The word might sound modern, but “wow” goes back hundreds if not thousands of years.

Discovering the origins of the words we say can be a lot of fun. It’s fascinating to trace the etymology of a term like “whiskey” to find out it comes from the Latin for life water. What happens when you get to a word like “wow,” though?

“Wow” doesn’t act like a lot of the words that make up the English language. It can’t be traced back to some ancient wowus spoken by Romans. That’s because “wow” is not a noun, verb, adjective or any other of those kinds of parts of speech; it’s a natural exclamation, like oof, ouch and ew. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s impossible to look at the history of the term, and the origin of “wow” can teach us quite a bit about the history of human language in general.

The Anatomy Of Wow

Say the word “wow” out loud. Now do it again, paying special attention to what your mouth is doing. The only part of your mouth that moves is your lips, which should make a nice rounded shape.

The “w” is one of the easiest sounds for humans to make. In human development, babies are able to make “w” sounds before almost any other consonant. Sounds like “t” or “s” require much more fine tongue articulation, whereas you don’t even need a tongue at all to make a “w.” This may sound weird, but the way you actually form “wow” is part of its history.

A “natural exclamation” is one that you make without putting much thought into it. When you stub your toe and shout “ow,” you probably didn’t put too much thought into that sound. It just comes out. A study that looked at natural exclamations in various languages found that there are some commonalities between them. The vowels that people use when they’re disgusted, fearful or pained tend to be similar. There are lots of variables at play, but there’s enough evidence to show that natural exclamations are not entirely random.

If they aren’t random, how is a natural exclamation decided? By what your face is doing. The vowels you use are mostly determined by where your tongue is in your mouth. When you’re disgusted, your mouth will stay mostly closed and produce close vowels (ee, ehh, eww). If you’re more shocked, you’ll open your mouth more, leading to more open vowels (ahh, ohh)

Our face might also be the reason we said “wow” in the first place. A feeling of awe or surprise can cause your face to naturally make an “o” shape. If you make a sound when this happens, it would naturally sound a bit like “wow.” The original uses of “wow” could be considered not language at all, but just the sound a human makes in response to something shocking.

The Written Origin Of Wow

It’s impossible to know when the first “wow” was said aloud. But the written record makes it easy to find the first “wow” recorded by humans (assuming there weren’t earlier written “wow”s lost to time, of course). 

The first “wow” comes not from English but from Scots. In a 1513 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, translator Gavin Douglas wrote the lines, “Out on thir wanderand spiritis, wow! thow cryis.” Why wow? One theory is that it’s related to the Scots exclamation “vow,” itself a shorter version of “I vow!” This is something you’d exclaim to make what you were saying more intense. This isn’t very similar to the modern use of “wow,” and it would be hundreds of years before “wow” came into very common use, at least in the written world.

The Evolution Of Wow

The Oxford English Dictionary states that by the end of the 1800s, “wow” was in regular use by English speakers. At that point, it was still only a natural exclamation. But in the beginning of the 20th century, that would start to change.

For some reason, the 1920s and ‘30s were the decades of “wow.” Looking at its use over the last 200 years, the use of “wow” peaked in those years (though it’s blown up even more in the past 20 years or so). This is fitting, because it’s also when “wow” started entering other parts of speech.

In 1920, “wow” was used as a noun, and you might say “This concert is a wow!” in the same way you might today say “This song is a bop!” As you might already know, this specific use has pretty much entirely disappeared. Four years later, “wow” was a verb, in the sense that you could “wow” someone with a dazzling display. Lastly, in 1932 “wow” became a technical term that refers to an audio distortion in which the frequency suddenly goes up and then down, which makes a sound kind of like “wow.”

And “wow” really hasn’t stopped evolving. Once it became a commonly written term, it could take on more cultural contexts. It’s a staple in text messages and other online communication, whether a person is showing genuine enthusiasm or hiding contempt. It can be used ironically in response to a very boring story you were told. Or maybe you’re just using it to perfect your Owen Wilson impression. And there are companies like WOW (airline), WOW! (cable provider) and WoW (video game) that use the word, making it even more ubiquitous.

Despite all of the other meanings that have been accrued, the survival of “wow” is likely thanks to its simplicity and how naturally it’s formed. This is also why it is so similar across a huge number of languages, like the Spanish guau, Korean 와우 (wau), Russian Вау (vau) and many, many more that just use “wow.” It can sound like a modern word, but it is something that connects us with our ancestors, likely going way back to the early days of humanity. Those humans may not have many terms, but when confronted with something truly awesome, it’s very possible they curved their lips into something loosely like a “wow.”

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