The inherent ambiguity of "WTF"

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I'd like to echo Arnold Zwicky's praise for the third edition of Jesse Sheidlower's fan-fucking-tastic dictionary, The F Word. (See page 33 to read the entry for fan-fucking-tastic, dated to 1970 in Terry Southern's Blue Movie. And see page 143 for the more general use of -fucking- as an infix, in use at least since World War I.) Full disclosure: I made some contributions to this edition, suggesting possible new entries and digging up earlier citations ("antedatings") for various words and phrases. I took a particular interest in researching effing acronyms and initialisms. For instance, I was pleased to contribute the earliest known appearance of the now-ubiquitous MILF — and no, I'm not talking about the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. (For the record, a Buffalo-based rock band adopted the name MILF in early 1991, based on slang used by lifeguards at Fort Niagara State Park.) Another entry I helped out on is the endlessly flexible expression of bewilderment, WTF.

Anyone who has encounted WTF in the wild probably knows that its primary meaning is "what the fuck," but the W can also stand for various other question words. When I started trawling through early examples in the archive of Usenet newsgroups, I was surprised to discover that this inherent ambiguity has been present in WTF all along, since its first popularization in the mid- to late '80s. Here are the earliest examples I've found for the different possible expansions:

WTF = "what the fuck"
1985 "Ramblings 5/85" net.micro.mac (18 May) I asked myself, "W.T.F.?"

WTF = "why the fuck"
1985 "Proline C preliminary review" net.micro.cbm (26 May) WTF do I need a C primer if I am buying the compiler for the language?

WTF = "where the fuck"
1988  "sgipie.ps (file 2 of 5)" comp.windows.news (28 Aug.) wtf did all that junk on the stack come from?

WTF = "whatever the fuck"
1990 "Ageism, Lookism, straightism, Eeekism[tm]" soc.motss (15 Mar.) i don't believe the 'gay community' (wtf that is…) has formal input in this process.

WTF = "who the fuck"
1990 Jargon File, Version 2.1.5 (28 Nov.) WTF: The universal interrogative particle. WTF knows what it means?

The last example from the Jargon File is wonderfully self-referential, forcing the reader into the who interpretation and thereby illustrating how you can only know what the abbreviation means by judging the surrounding context. Absent from these early examples (at least the ones I could glean from Google's not-terribly-reliable Usenet archive) is WTF with an expansion of "when the fuck," but rest assured, that's attested in later sources:

2002 "More ELF buggery…" bugtraq mailing list (26 May) cathy, wtf are you coming over for beer?

2004 ""Fraser and Weiz won't be in Mummy 3" rec.sport.pro-wrestling (21 Feb.) So…wtf will the story be around?

2004 "Comment on *Fangfingers's profile" deviantART (15 May) DAMN, man! Wtf are you gonna FIX that thing!!

By the early '90s, the abbreviation had become so entrenched in online lingo that it also came to be used as a noun with various meanings:

1990 "One hell of a screwwed up article" rec. humor (30 Mar.) This may have been funny had it required a bit less translation from WTF to english.

1991 "Devil bunnies! I snort the nose,Lucifer!" alt.fan.monty-python (12 Oct.) All I get is a couple nominations for a Rory and a WTF!

And then it began to be used attributively:

1994 "sendmail: how is | (pipe) supported?" alt.fan.warlord (1 Feb.) I'm glad that barphic is clearly labelled, otherwise this would be a WTF? post.

The attributive usage took off especially in the expression "WTF moment." Here on Language Log, "WTF moment" begat "WTF grammar" in a March 2005 post by Mark Liberman, shortly followed by "WTF coordinations." (See here for links to other WTF posts on Language Log Classic, and here for more recent posts.)

Just to cover my bases, I'll note that WTF spelled backwards is FTW, a popular online abbreviation standing for "For the Win!" Fittingly, FTW! is quite the opposite reaction to WTF? And if you want to know the history of another expansion of FTW, namely "fuck the world," go get the new edition of The F-Word and turn to page 68.

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33 Comments »

  1. Amy said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    A hilarious book to check out is Jabberfucky and Other Poems, by Maude Spekes & Sybilia Grogan. The Emily Dickinson remakes are my favorites, such as "Because I Could Not Stop for Fuck".

  2. TWF said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

    I always interpret FTW as fuck the what.

  3. Sili said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

    What The What Fuck said. At least until I learnt the correct reading.

    Any uses of FTH for "For The Horde"?

    I must be very isolated – I don't recall ever seeing W being anything but What.

    I belived there's not a FML website/blog out there: Fuck My Life.

    FTM/F2M and MTF/M2F confused me at first, too. But of course they turn out to be unfucky.

  4. jfruh said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

    There's a great Website dedicated to chronciling WTFery in IT environments called "The Daily WTF." Interestingly, presumably around the time the site got enough readers that it began to go legit as an ad-supported business, it briefly rebranded itself as "Worse Than Failure," though it was quickly restored to its original name after a reader mini-revolt.

    I think it's also interesting to note that "WTF" is one of those abbreviations, like "WWII", that takes longer to say alound than the phrase it's abbreviating, which I imagine marks it pretty purely as a product of written language. Has anyone ever non-ironically said "doubleyou tee eff" aloud?

  5. Tyler said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    I think your second proposed example for "when the fuck" (rec.sport.pro-wrestling 2004) actually expands as "who the fuck".

    [(bgz) Right you are -- didn't read the context closely enough. I've replaced it with another 2004 cite.]

  6. Neil Dolinger said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

    While we're at it, any citations out there for WTF as "whom the fuck"? HTF as "how the fuck"? Any 19th century "whither the fuck" WTF's?

  7. kip said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

    @jfruh I say it aloud as "dub-tee eff". At first it was ironic, but now it's part of my standard vocabulary. It's a phrase I picked up from some flash cartoon that made its way around the internet many years ago. I think an Australian character in the cartoon said "dub tee eff, mate?"

    People do non-ironically say "double-u double-u double-u" for www, which is three times as many syllables as "world wide web". Of course I think it's usually only twice as many syllables, because it comes out like "dubya dubya dubya".

  8. Robert Coren said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

    I confess that the apparently ubiquitous MILF was hitherto unknown to me.

  9. John Lawler said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

    I was wondering about HTF myself. 'Who' is of course not pronounced with /w/, but it appears to work fine with WTF, while HTF seems unlikely. Since fuck is overwhelmingly spoken over written (and indeed is not even allowed to be written in many contexts), it seems odd that spelling should be the crucial variable. But there it is, from *kʷo - to WTF.

  10. Mr. B said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

    @Kip: This is the video you seek.

  11. mgh said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

    WTF took on an additional usage under the previous US presidential administration, as a response to the "W" stickers that supporters of the 43rd President displayed

    http://bumperstickers.cafepress.com/item/bush-wtf-sticker-oval/99872869

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    Lots of HTF hits if you search for "HTF do". E.g., htf do i get a deisant mmorpg bcoz i cant find any good 1s but runescape. Sic. "HTF can" would probably be worth trying too.

    Speaking of longer abbreviations, I've been known to say and type, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot"?

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

    @jfruh,it's perhaps hard to judge non-irony given these darn kids today etc., but of course there are occasions when saying the "unabbreviated" phrase aloud would be contextually inappropriate, thus giving rise to the whole "minced oath" phenomenon. Here, the "abbreviation" might plausibly serve that function even if it took more syllables to utter than the unexpurgated original. There's also "whiskey tango foxtrot," which is well-suited for saying aloud, although I have no reliable data as to what percentage (if greater than zero) of such utterances are non-ironic.

    Are there instances captured in the wild of WTF as a stand-alone exclamation (not part of a sentence) where the W seems to represent something other than "what"? Ditto for the use as noun or attributively?

  14. Jordan Harp said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 5:53 pm

    It's interesting you brought up "for the win." I had assumed (even argued) that "for the win" was adopted from sports commentators building suspense for the final play: "And here's Woods, for the win…" The first time I saw it outside of that contest was in an MMORPG. Has the origin ever been traced?

  15. Gordon P. Hemsley said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

    For the record (FTR), FTW can also stand for "For Those Wondering".

  16. sleepnothavingness said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

    @Jerry Friedman:

    In a certain British defence company in the mid-1980s it was common parlance to use Foxtrot Oscar to mean "fuck off", both as an imprecation and as a transitive meaning to absquatulate. Gradually the expansion became contracted to a mere "I'm going to foxtrot."

    What clients must have thought remains a mystery.

  17. Kapitano said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

    LOL is also ambigious. It can be "Laugh Out Loud" or "Lots of Laughs". Though actually I think it doesn't mean either anymore – its semantics have broken free from its etymology, leaving us with variations like "Lulz" and "LOLOL", which owe little to the word's original status as acronym.

  18. Jim said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 7:22 pm

    "I'm going to foxtrot" then leads directly to "Can That Boy Foxtrot", originally intended for Sondheim's "Follies", where the dance style is a euphemism.

  19. JimG said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

    VietNam-era conversations (in-theater) sometimes included mock radio procedure using standard phonetics, coming out as "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?, Over" = WTF,O and thus "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Oscar?" I and some of my old-fart contemporaries sometimes use it still, as an opening greeting as well as an expression of disbelief or lack of understanding. We also inserted the adjective form into out*standing, out*rageous and abso*lutely.

    As a kid, a military brat accompanying my father to an assignment in Germany in the 1950s, I was aware of FTA = F the Army and FTW = F the world. The latrine graffitists stayed one jump ahead of the painters with FTA, FTW and OHIO (Over the Hill In October, an AWOL reference), all three of which deeply irritated the brass.

  20. Lazar said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

    I've got a new one: "WTF art thou Romeo?"

  21. AJD said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 8:17 pm

    For the win is thought (by whom? by me? Ah, the vague-about agency passive. Well, someone thinks it, anyhow) to originate from the quiz show Hollywood Squares. There's some examples of it in this YouTube clip of the game; it was used when the player chose a celebrity who would make it possible for them to win the game.

  22. Eli said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

    Agree with kip. My use of saying WTF has wandered into non-irony, and I've heard it used this way with others. My favourite recent occurrence was at one of my sister's ball games, where their coach yelled out, after a bad call, "WTF, ump?!"

  23. kim said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 11:09 pm

    Unless you happen to frequent the martial arts forums, in which case WTF can mean World Taekwondo Federation. Or not ;)

  24. dr pepper said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 12:59 am

    I used to try saying "wou" (as in "would") for W. But that turned out to be hard to say 3 times in a row, so now i say "wau".

  25. Benvenuto said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 4:08 am

    Any examples of "whether the fuck", eg. "I'd like to know wtf you're going to clean that thing or not?"

  26. scav said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 8:32 am

    About spoken forms of WWW: How about hextuple-U? (Three double-Us makes one hextuple-U right?) Still one more syllable than "world wide web" though.

  27. Jake T said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 9:19 am

    As long as we're talking bizarre derivations, as a non-curser (for religious reasons), I use WTG, where "G" = "gonkulator" (an obscure guitar effect pedal made briefly popular by Incubus, I believe).

    The fact that I picked up my internet lingo in guitar effects discussion boards might have contributed to this.

    In any case, it's a case of double irony: gonkulator is such a ridiculous word, and it's utterly ridiculous that I have to obscure an already acronymized curse. Combining the two provides such over-the-top silliness that, hopefully, everyone's aware that I think it's ridiculous, too.

  28. Chris said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 10:24 am

    @AJD: I was going to suggest the popular online game (but not MMORPG) Starcraft, where it was common to see comments like "zealot rush FTW", but I think you're right, the Starcraft use probably derives from the earlier Hollywood Squares use.

  29. Kate Y. said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 3:09 am

    My preferred pronunciation of WWW is "dub-dub-dub". No one has yet responded "WTF?"

  30. Zwicky Arnold said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 10:04 am

    Amy's reference to the Spekes & Grogan Jabberfucky book led me to the Amazon.com site and so to the excellent verb bawdlerize 'make bawdy', which I posted about here.

  31. Mark Reed said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 10:57 am

    In the realm of alternate expansions of WTF: in the premiere episode of the new television comedy "Modern Family", the self-proclaimed "cool dad" was showing off his hipness and awareness of youth culture by expanding Internet acronyms: "LOL – laughing out loud. OMG – oh my God! WTF – why the face?"

  32. Garrett Wollman said,

    September 29, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

    I happen to know the guy who controls uu3.org. (He works for w3.org.) I should ask him why there's no A record for uuuuuu.uu3.org.

  33. ASG said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

    When I adopted a litter of three kittens last year, I named them Whiskey, Tango, and Foxtrot. It's awesome for several reasons: the kind of person who would be offended by the obscene expansion usually won't recognize it, while the person who would find it hilarious usually does recognize it. It's one of those rare jokes that makes a kind of sense even to people who don't get the reference, since the individual words are "appropriate" names for kittens (all three turn up regularly on cat-naming websites) and fit their personalities surprisingly well. Meanwhile, the entire sequence can represent two separate phrases that both happen to be good descriptions what life is like living with the animals.

    A friend and I came up with the idea of using the order in which the kittens enter the room as a kind of divination scheme: if they come in in W-T-F order, it's going to be a bad day, but if it's F-T-W order, it's going to be a good day. Opinion is divided on the other possible letter sequences.

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