Whoa as me

« previous post | next post »

None of the words in the expression "woe is me" are especially rare or obsolete, but the syntactic structure and semantic interpretation are definitely archaic. If you learned the expression by listening rather than by reading, you might well go for some alternative way of composing similar-sounding words to arrive at the contextually apparent meaning, like "whoa as me".

That's not much closer to being compositional in contemporary English, but it's certainly no further away either. And at least a few people seem to have taken that route, including one that I noticed in a recent weblog comment.

A few random examples from the web:

Whoa as me , Whoa as me. For the past 4 days I have been constipated.
Stop saying whoa as me, and start saying whoa, I feel sorry for my competition.
Whoa as me…. I hate Monday's!!!!
Tell your whoa-as-me mantra to the innocent children in post 13 who were raped.
My husband and I were just talking about all of the ‘whoa as me’ issues that we’d been through with our son.
Damn-it … complain … moan … whoa as me … all that other stuff.
Whoa as me, the temperature is forecast to go down to 28 degrees between 5am and 7am tomorrow morning.

One instance even made it into print (Kreig V. Wens, Prosecuted Innocence, 2003):

"Why don't you knock off your sniveling, whoa-as-me, little bitch attitude."

"Whoa is me" is in the Eggcorn Database, entered by Chris Waigl in 2005, along with the even more ingenious "woeth me".  Mark Peters used it in the title of a (now-defunct?) column on kid's eggcorns. And Arnold Zwicky notes that "the whoas of X" (for X = website hosting, the sales force, deep sea fishing, teaching, travel, a fallen economy, etc. ) are definitely out there.

Even more common, I think, is "woe as me". In addition to wide distribution on the web at large, there are a larger number of published examples:

They both looked at each other, apparently amazed that I didn't begin to mope and go all “woe-as-me” as soon as Katie Harbor entered the conversation.
Each offered his own advice to my woe-as-me email
… he makes a ploy for sympathy in this woe-as-me story, but nothing is more alienating than maudlin self-pity…

There are also some generalizations out there to other persons:

We've had a bit of a rough day today so this all might sound a little woe-as-us
Oh woe as us….How do we stop this?…Its gonna cost money
Not long enough, we reached the end of the line, but whoa as us, we were 7 and the maximum allowed inside the regular taxis were 4.
Oh, whoa as us, conservatives! Why do we continue to stand in the way of the liberals, who are only trying to save us from our moronic selves?
Save the pathetic scapegoating, whoa as us, we can't be good enough BULLSH*T.

He needs to understand that, yes, he's in prison and whoa as him
he told me how sick he was of it all and he just didn't want to live anymore, whoa as him, blah, blah, blah.
BUT alas!! whoa as her!

Share:



44 Comments »

  1. Rod Johnson said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 9:22 am

    Conversely, I see the interjection "whoa" spelled as "woe" often, and (although I can't locate any examples), seeming construals of it as "bad news!" rather than "stop!"

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 9:31 am

    Oh, and there's a band named "Woe, Is Me" [comma sic], which I think further indicates the semantic opacity of the expression. So it's unsurprising that randomized soundalikes are proliferating.

  3. Brian C. said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 10:16 am

    I wonder if prescriptivists have ever demanded that it should be "Woe is I."

  4. Robert Coren said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    @Brian C: Or "Woe am I"?

    If English had an unambiguously recognizable dative, the expression "woe is me" would probably be intelligible to more people.

  5. TonyK said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 10:37 am

    This syntax is not entirely obsolete: it has been revived by Kids 'R' Us.

  6. Craig Russell said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 10:47 am

    @Brian C

    Yes:

    http://www.amazon.com/Woe-Grammarphobes-Guide-Better-English/dp/157322331X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1318693089&sr=8-1

    This book (Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide To Better English) caught my eye in the bookstore so I picked it up and leafed through the first several pages. The explanation offered for the title seems to suggest that "woe is me" (a quote which the author attribute to Ophelia in Hamlet — I'm not sure if that is actually the origin of the expression or just a famous example; anyone know?) is "technically incorrect" but that Shakespeare could get away with it because "the rules of English grammar weren't even formalized in Shakespeare's day".

    The ultimate point seems to be "don't worry if you're not perfect at grammar! Shakespeare wasn't either, and he's Shakespeare! But unlike him, you have the advantage of this book to teach you the correct rules!"

    I didn't read far enough to see whether the book ever weighs in on "methinks"…

  7. Mary Bull said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 10:49 am

    @ TonyK

    Also, Toys "R" Us.

  8. komfo,amonan said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    @Craig Russell : Just gonna defend Ms O'Conner from your almost certainly unintentional slander. Her claims are essentially opposite to what you said.

    Apparently Isaiah 6:5 has "Woe is me" in KJV, "Wo to me" in Wycliffe.

  9. David J. Littleboy said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 11:32 am

    "And Arnold Zwicky notes that "the whoas of X""

    Of which Dave van Ronk's "The Whores of San Pedro" is, presumably, an instance, no?

  10. Rodger C said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    As Robert Coren already said, surely "me" in "Woe is me" is (or started out as) a dative?

  11. Janice Byer said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 11:47 am

    "Wednesday's child is full of whoa." – 1,390 ghits

  12. LDavidH said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

    So did Wycliffe create the expression "woe to me" for his Bible translation, which then by Shakespeare's time had become "woe is me", which was then used in the KJV version of Isa 6:5? Or did it exist before Wycliffe?

    [(myl) There are several examples in Chaucer's various works, though the dating relative to Wycliffe's bible translation is not clear to me. But Robert Mannyng died in 1338, when Wycliffe was 10 years old, and he wrote

    A, my sone! my socour! now wo ys me:
    Ho shal graunte me to deye wyþ þe?

    and also

    A, swete sone! now wo ys me,
    Þat y no lenger may byde with þe,

    ]

  13. Craig Russell said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

    @komfo,amonan

    Sorry, I stand by my interpretation. Here's the full quote from the passage I was referring to:

    "Pronouns are usually small (I, me, he, she, it), but they’re among the biggest troublemakers in the language. If you’ve ever been picked on by the pronoun police, don’t despair. You’re in good company. Hundreds of years after the first Ophelia cried “Woe is me,” only a pedant would argue that Shakespeare should have written “Woe is I” or “Woe is unto me.” (Never mind that the rules of English grammar weren’t even formalized in Shakespeare’s day.) The point is that no one is exempt from having his pronouns second-guessed."

    I interpret this to mean "don't worry if you make mistakes with your grammar. Even Shakespeare made mistakes. 'Woe is me' is an example of something that is technically incorrect." I take "only a pedant would argue…" to mean, "yeah, it's technically incorrect, but come on — it's Shakespeare. The rules were different for him." (this is what I read "Never mind that the rules of English grammar weren't even formalized in Shakespeare's day" to mean.)

  14. Mark F said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

    So was "woe is me" ever compositional? I've read enough Shakespeare to know that "[abstract state] is me" didn't routinely turn up. I bet it's been a fixed phrase for a long, long time.

  15. Richard Sabey said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

    Douglas Hofstadter had "I'd say woe, O, woe are we" in Gödel, Escher, Bach (pub. 1979), p.154.

  16. Robert Coren said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

    My confidence in the "me" as being dative assumes that it either comes from or shares origin with the German "Weh ist mir" (which many English-speakers have probably encountered in its Yiddish equivalent), which is perfectly good grammatical German.

  17. Robert Coren said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

    @Richard Sabey: Hofstadter may or may not have read James Thurber's The Wonderful O, in which one character ruefully remarks, as an example of the results of the villains of the piece removing instances of the titular letter one by one, "Woe is we".

  18. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 5:20 pm

    @Robert Coren et al.: Another data point: In my native Polish, this is biada mi, unambiguously dative, as in German.

  19. Isabeau said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

    Oy vey iz mir!

  20. lynneguist said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 5:41 pm

    And how many more you'd have found if you'd searched 'woah as me'! (2130 more, Google tells me.)

    In case anyone's interested in a blog post on 'whoa' v 'woah', I've got one. It is nearly consistently the most-read archive post on my blog, which never ceases to surprise/amuse me.

    [(myl) And here it is: "whoa and woah", 4/20/2009. "Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house."]

  21. Robert Coren said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 6:59 pm

    @Isabeau: Exactly.

  22. Rod Johnson said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 7:04 pm

    Lynne, interesting article (and comments!). I'm very curious about this "(p)hwoarrr" that is mentioned there–what is that? Totally unfamiliar to me )or at least that spelling gives me nothing). Is it pronounced differently from "whoa"?

  23. Bobbie said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

    From the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" Mrs. Pourtokalos asks: "Voula, how is business? "

    " Oh, woe to me. Business is bad."

  24. Anarcissie said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

    There is also the Latin 'vae [dative]' as in 'vae victis'. This could have been part of Shakespeare's little Latin.

    I have heard a word that sounds like 'woe' or 'whoa' but is neither, but rather merely a sort of emphatic 'oh!', in colloquial use. It is something like 'hey!' or 'yo!' It has no particular spelling.

  25. Craig Russell said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 7:59 pm

    The dative explanation is certainly correct. More dative fun for us Classics majors: English "woe", originally an interjection of grief, corresponds etymologically to Latin 'vae' (pronounced "why") with the same meaning, which is regularly used with the dative. The Latin phrase "Vae mihi" (mihi = dative singular first person pronoun), etymologically an exact equivalent of English "woe me", is extremely common in Roman drama.

    Perhaps the same phrase that we see in Plautus's Latin actually survived intact from Indo-European to Anglo Saxon? OED under "woe" says under the second heading:

    "Construed with a dative (or, later, its equivalent), with or without a verb of being or happening, in sentences expressing the incidence of distress, affliction, or grief."

    It then gives examples of phrases such as "wá biþ þǽm mannum" = "woe be the men (dative)" going back to Beowulf.

  26. Ingrid Jakobsen said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 9:19 pm

    Anarcissie: you're missing a bit of pop culture, namely the movie "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" (1989).

    An illustrative 4-second youtube clip:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OT4B-NJUcZE

    Keanu Reeves was then required to repeat the performance in "The Matrix" (1999):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQ5iFQv1KaE

  27. maidhc said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 11:45 pm

    Of course Thurber should have said "Woe are us".

    How is the Bill & Ted word spelled? "Whoa" seems wrong. I experimented on my wife, who is a "wh" pronouncer. She pronounces "wh" in the word that you say to a horse, but not for the Bill & Ted word.

    "Woah" seems to me to look like it has two syllables, like "Noah".

    Possibly "wo", similar to "yo"? Or would "woh" be clearer?

    So the modern version would be "I'm all like woh, dude!".

  28. Richard Sabey said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 1:24 am

    @Rod Johnson http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=phwoar

    Senses 1-4 there are the "phwoar" I'm familiar with. Sense 5 seems suspect (the few google hits are dictionary-style definitions, not uses). Sense 7 is perhaps a misapprehension of "phew!".

  29. un malpaso said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 1:26 am

    And let's not forget the Anglo-Yiddish form of the Slavic possessive… "By me everything's good."

    I think I read somewhere that the majority of novel utterances of the first-person pronoun in English, and in fact most Indo-European languages, use the objective/dative "m" form by default, and that this was a deep-rooted characteristic of the language that had survived many millenia of superficial changes.

    Or maybe I just dreamed it, methinks.

  30. John Walden said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 4:04 am

    I can see the link to Latin and German datives but surely the more compelling parallel is the French disjunctive "moi" which seems to usefully explain most instances of how English is really used by all but the most careful (to be polite):

    "It's me" (Does anybody really say "It's I" when they're on the phone?)

    "Who wants a drink?"
    "Me!"

    and so on.

    So "Woe is me" is much like "I am woe", whatever its origins. It's not really different from "I am the answer" "The answer is me".

  31. Alex said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 5:37 am

    William Safire had a detailed column on this in the NYT (here).

  32. Janice Byer said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 10:11 am

    "How is the Bill & Ted word spelled [phonetically]? 'Whoa' seems wrong."

    maidhc, in the clip below, which claims to be definitive, I hear a pronounced range from 'wha?!' to 'woh' to 'whoh' to 'woah' all the way to 'wooooooooooh!!!' and then some:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mP0Sjhp0KLo&NR=1

  33. Robert Coren said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    @maidhc: Of course Thurber should have said "Woe are us".

    Well, not in that context he shouldn't.

  34. Ere Words Were | The Coming of the Toads said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

    [...] we when once we wooed wowed with words we would vow to wed where naught taught to tie the knot a language log in front of us saw how it was on a woeful wordful [...]

  35. Kay said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 2:10 pm

    What I love about this is that my brother had a stuffed goat growing up named (apparently) Whoa goat, however my entire childhood I thought his name was Woe goat (its head sagged to one side in the saddest way).

  36. Rod Johnson said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

    Is "phwoar" pronounced rhotically? Is that "ph" [f] or just some kind of labial approximant?

    By the way, are people treating Bill and Ted as some kind of locus classicus of the "stoner whoa"? It's been around a bit longer than that.

  37. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

    So Robert Mannyng would have been a teenager when Edward I imprudently and uncharitably expelled the Jews from England, ensuring that Mannyng's calque of weh's mir would be the last Yiddishism entering English for many centuries to come . . .

    I assume that Latin "vae" would have come to be pronounced "vay" rather than "way" long before the 14th century?

  38. Bloix said,

    October 17, 2011 @ 12:56 am

    Is woe is me archaic or is it unique? Are there examples of other noun-is-me phrases? Anger is me? Fright is me? Fortune is me?

  39. pj said,

    October 17, 2011 @ 6:06 am

    @Rod Johnson
    YouTube link to a 'phwoar!' in action. The 'ph' is actually less 'f'-y in that example than I'd find typical – but I still wouldn't transcribe that utterance as anything else. (I wonder what it said in the script?)

    It's not to my knowledge ever pronounced rhotically, but then I strongly associate it as native to a non-rhotic BrE type of accent (and I have one of those myself); I certainly can't imagine or simulate to myself a Scot, say, pronouncing an 'r' on the end if they said it, but I have no authority to assert that they definitely wouldn't.

  40. Rod Johnson said,

    October 17, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

    Thanks! I don't think I've ever encountered that (as distinct from plain old "whoa") here in the midwestern US.

  41. lynneguist said,

    October 18, 2011 @ 5:41 pm

    Phwoar is definitely British rather than American English. Sorry that I wasn't here to answer your question more immediately, Rod Johnson, but thanks to everyone who took up the baton, and especial thanks to Mark for putting my link in! (I thought I had! Or do they get spam-filtered out?)

  42. Andrew said,

    October 18, 2011 @ 10:22 pm

    Conversely … there is an Australian idiom, "from go to whoa", derived from horse racing and meaning "from start to finish". I occasionally, and increasingly, see it spelled "from go to woe".

  43. Xmun said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

    @Bloix
    "Woe" in the expression "Woe is me" isn't really a noun but an interjection. It's more like "Alas", "Lackaday", etc., and its converse is found in expressions like "Yippee!", "Hurrah!", etc.
    I imagine that "woe" probably started life not so much as a word but as a simple moan or groan.

  44. Palindromes and Other Word Play | Wordnik said,

    May 5, 2012 @ 6:15 pm

    [...] sense than the original form in many cases.” Language Log’s Mark Liberman explores the example whoa is me (for woe is me). The term was coined by Geoffrey Pullum, and named for the mishearing of eggcorn [...]

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment