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[Preface:  scores of versions of the Wawa logo here.  Take a look before plunging in to the post.]

Brother Joe told me the good news that Wawa stores are coming to my home state of Ohio!

Wawa's are great!  Anyone who went to Penn would know this because their stores are near the campus and their hoagies / subs, salads, mac and cheese, coffee, snacks of all sorts, etc. are tasty and wholesome.  I could practically live out of Wawa's.

Chinese chuckle when they encounter the word "Wawa".  The first thing they think of is "wáwá 娃娃" ("baby; child; doll") — note the female radicals on the left, but secondarily they might think of "wāwā 哇哇" ("wow wow") — note the mouth radicals, or tertiarily they might think of "wāwā 蛙蛙" ("frog") — note the insect / bug radicals.  The name just somehow sounds funny.  Cf. what we were saying about sound symbolism in "The sound of swearing" (12/7/22).

Wawa is the name of a town about eight miles west of Swarthmore (just outside of Philadelphia), in Delaware County where I live.  The actual origin of the name "Wawa" is from the Ojibwe word for "wild goose", because of the flocks of geese that were attracted to the still water behind Lenni milldam.

But maybe not.

"How did Wawa get its name? A not-so-wild goose chase", Brian Amaral, nj.com (11/21/13)

Ever wonder how Wawa got its name?

I did. When I first moved to New Jersey from upstate New York – the land of Stewart's and Nice N Easy – I saw the convenience stores and wondered how they came up with that rather funny-sounding moniker.

Then I saw the goose on the store's logo. Feeling pretty smart, I thought back to my French classes, where we learned that the French word for goose is oie, pronounced: "wa."

That must be it, I told myself: There's a goose on the logo, and the name is a reference to geese. Two geese. Wawa. Voila! Mystery solved.

It wasn't until a few months later, when I decided to actually check my facts, that I found out I had been wrong all along.

The answer is pretty simple: Wawa is named after Wawa, Pa., where the first Wawa, a dairy, was founded.

But the story behind the words doesn't end there. Here's where it gets interesting: The town in Pennsylvania was so named because that's what the local Native American tribe called a certain bird. That bird? The Canada goose.

Two languages with little historical association have a very similar term for a very particular bird. Being a gigantic nerd – and, relatedly, a bird enthusiast – I thought this etymological coincidence was pretty cool. So I called the public radio show A Way With Words to ask whether it really was a coincidence. A Way With Words, based in California, is syndicated on radio stations coast-to-coast, and is also available as a podcast.

[VHM:  embedded podcast here.  Recommended.  Hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett offer some good linguistic reasons why the Native Americans didn't need to borrow the word for "goose" from the French.]

In short, there's no definitive conclusion. It's possible that the two languages came up with a similar-sounding name for the goose independently. If you're skeptical, think of it like you can think of all eerie coincidences: Think about all the words in both languages that don't sound alike.

There's also the possibility that both words are onomatopoetic – that is, the words imitate sounds associated with what they're describing, like buzz and murmur. The Canada goose does make a sound similar to "wawa," so it's possible that both the Ojibwa word "wawa" and the French word "l'oie" are based on the goose's honking characteristic. (Update: One reader casts doubt on this interpretation.)

For the convenience store and gas station chain, what started as a geographical marker has become a deep part of the Wawa culture, said spokeswoman Lori Bruce. The company embraces the goose as an icon of teamwork. That's why it's on the store's logo, and that also explains the feathered mascot.

"To this day, Wawa's corporate headquarters are still located in Wawa and the Canada Goose is now a literal and metaphorical symbol for our company," Bruce said in an email. "Like a flock of Canada Geese flying in 'V' formation, we pride ourselves on teamwork and encouragement. We think it's the only way to fly."

The store's mascot is Wally, a giant Canada goose and the company's "Chief Honker," will be at the Woodbridge store opening on Friday.

The chain has a historical foothold in the southern part of the state, but it's now migrating north, we presume in a V-formation.

But, but…

French oie (pronounced wa) — "goose"

From Old French oie, from earlier oe, oue, from Vulgar Latin auca, contraction of *avica, from Latin avis (bird). Compare Italian, Spanish and Catalan oca, Franco-Provençal ôye, Occitan and Romansch auca, Friulian ocje.

The Trésor de la langue française argues that -i- was added by the end of the 12th century as analogy to oisel, oiseau (bird).


Cajun z'oie — "goose"

(Louisiana, Cajun) Alternative form of oie, goose


Which came first — the French or the Native American word?  Maybe that's not the right question.

Oh, and I almost forgot:


1926, in jazz slang, in reference to the effect on brass instruments made by manipulating the mute; of imitative origin. Later also in reference to an electric guitar effect. As an imitation of the sound of a baby crying, it is recorded from 1938. Wah-wah pedal is recorded from 1969. Compare Chinook jargon wawa "talk, speak, call, ask, sermon, language;" Cree (Algonquian) wehwew "goose," Lenape (Algonquian) wava "snow goose," all probably of imitative origin.


As my friend Pinky Wu would say, "Wahhhhh!".  I love this Cantonese exclamation — wah!  Around 1969 in Seattle, I learned it from Pinky Wu, granddaughter of Wang Ching-wei (1883-1944), head of state of the Reorganized National Government of China based in Nanjing during WWII.  Pinky would use it to express admiration, surprise, amazement, or delight, and it was just wonderful to hear her say it with so many different intonations and nuances.  (Pinky seemed to say "wah" about every tenth word, so tickled was she by almost everything.)  I picked "wah" up from Pinky and still to this day I use it where most Americans would probably say "wow!"  The reason I think "wah" is so effective in expressing the emotions that Pinky used it for is that the syllable does not close at the end; it just lingers on and on:  wahhhhh! — but it can also be brief and terse when called for.  Although I do think that "wow" looks nicer on the page than "wah", the intrinsic nature of "wow" is that, when spoken, it closes off at the end:  wow!  So it's hard to prolong your feeling of astonishment, stupefaction, and so forth.  Wahhhhhhhh!  N.B.:  This is a totally different "wah" from the Dartmouth Indian cheer (also picked up by Virginia):  wa-hoo-wa.

Cf. "New Singaporean and Hong Kong terms in the OED" (5/12/16)


Selected reading

[h.t. Emperor Joe Mair; Wandering Van Man]


  1. Jerry Packard said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 7:26 am

    Thank you for the nice post. A new Wawa, the first in our area, is also opening just down the road from us near Venice, FLA.

  2. Taylor, Philip said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 7:40 am

    Wawa is also a town in Ontario, Canada, known for the 28-foot metal statue of a Canada goose built in 1960. Wawa (Ontario) is said to take its name from the Ojibwe word for "wild goose", wewe. I have never visited Wawa in Delaware County, but I have visited Wawa in Canada, and in fact stayed there.

  3. S Frankel said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 8:34 am

    I dunno. Saw a sign in one of their windows once "Wawa Hoagies" and thought it was just baby talk. (shrug-emoji)

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 9:13 am

    This is interesting insofar as Wawa's numerous locations within Pennsylvania are all east of the Susquehanna, so they seem to be leapfrogging over Western Pa. (where Altoona-headquartered Sheetz fills a somewhat similar niche) to enter the Ohio market. (They extend farther west south of the Mason-Dixon line – if you're in Pittsburgh and have a Wawa's craving, your closest options are in Frederick, Md.

  5. Rob P. said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 9:52 am

    On a tangent, but Wawa always reminds me of one of my favorite trademark cases from when I was in school, it was one of the first cases decided under the then-new dilution act. Wawa vs. Haha. https://www.mcall.com/news/mc-xpm-1997-05-12-3147048-story.html

  6. Chris Button said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 9:58 am

    蛙 “frog” with its multiple Middle Chinese readings is almost certainly originally onomatopoeic. Recently I came across a similar form in Harry Shorto’s dictionary of Mon inscriptions too. The funny thing about onomatopoeia is that it isn’t immune to sound change, so it seems that it’s not just socio-linguistic background that determines how onomatopoeic something actually sounds to a speaker today.

  7. Roscoe said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 10:21 am

    In a “Saturday Night Live” sketch that was set during the Revolutionary War, a member of the Pennsylvania delegation pulls out a basket of “corn fritters from Wawa,” explaining that “Wawa’s an Indian lady who lives just outside of Conshohocken.”

  8. VVOV said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 10:59 am

    I was also reminded of Dr Mair's recent post of the billboard in Taiwan that said "O wawa nu pangcah" (child of the Pancgah). Is that Pancgah / Amis langauge "wawa" a loanword from Chinese 娃娃, or just parallel evolution?

  9. Jerry Packard said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 11:13 am

    Pancgah / Amis "wawa" is most likely a loanword from 娃娃. Incidentally, 娃娃 is pronounced wáwa (neutral tone on 2nd syllable) in northern Mandarin, and more likely wáwā in southern Mandarin (e.g., Taiwan).

  10. Victor Mair said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 11:50 am

    MYL's quarters are a hundred paces from the nearest Wawa.

    VHM's office is two hundred paces from the nearest Wawa.

    I don't know about Mark, but I go there a lot.

  11. Tom said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 4:32 pm

    When I first arrived at Princeton, I remember wondering, "If this place is supposed to be so intellectual, why does it have me constantly saying expressions like 'the Wawa down by the Dinky'?"

  12. Terry Snider said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 4:43 pm

    Thanks for the post.
    East Canton, Ohio.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 4:50 pm

    @J.W. Brewer

    As someone who has travelled along Route 30 (Lincoln Highway) from Atlantic City NJ to Chicago IL by foot, including running across the beautiful, old (1929) reinforced concrete Veterans Memorial Bridge (well over a mile long) between Lancaster and York (!), I especially appreciate your perceptive remark about the presence of Sheetz stores / stations west of that point and the corresponding absence of Wawa stores / stations.

  14. Tom Dawkes said,

    December 9, 2022 @ 2:21 am

    On onomatopeia and sound change:
    In a fragment of Cratinus, an Atheinian playwright "and the fool goes about like a sheep saying "βῆ βῆ", which equates to IPA [bε: bε:]. By the the Renaissance period the contemporary Greek pronunciation was [vi vi], which suggested to scholars that the ancient pronunciation must have been different.

  15. Eric R said,

    December 9, 2022 @ 4:38 am

    In spanish wawa is also used to refer to babies

  16. Francois Lang said,

    December 9, 2022 @ 8:24 am

    @ Tom
    My dorm at Princeton was literally right across the street from a WaWa and the Dinky station…what memories!


  17. Bloix said,

    December 9, 2022 @ 10:43 am

    This newspaper article (accessed via wikipedia)


    explains that Wawa was the local name of an unincorporated farm community, the word being borrowed from the Lenape word for goose. A dairy located there took the name Wawa Dairy Company. As home milk delivery began to be displaced by convenience stores, the company got into that business.

  18. Thayer Schroeder said,

    December 9, 2022 @ 4:16 pm

    I live in Wawa Pennsylvania. My great great grandfather started the Wawa Dairy Farms in 1902. The first person person to use the term was David Worth who built a house in the area and named it Wawa. Oddly David Worth made his money in mining. One of his mines was in Ontario Canada. It is an Ojibwa word for Canada Goose. The Ojibwa were in the Ontario area. Here in Wawa Pa we’re the Lenni Lenape, who did not use the term Wawa.

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 9, 2022 @ 5:56 pm

    @Tom & Francois L.: You'll be happy to know that there's a brand-new proposal to make Princeton a classier place by replacing the Dinky, for the low low pricetag of $190 million. https://www.trains.com/trn/news-reviews/news-wire/nj-transit-report-calls-for-replacing-princeton-dinky-with-light-rail-buses/

  20. Victor Mair said,

    December 9, 2022 @ 8:46 pm

    Hasn't the Dinky station already turned into a classy restaurant? (I don't know what they use for a station now.)

    The nearby Wawa is pretty nifty as far as Wawas go.

  21. Kimball Kramer said,

    December 11, 2022 @ 5:29 pm

    @Tom & Francois L.: At the Princeton Graduate College in 1956-59, we called the train the PJ&B—a very railroad-y name shortened from “Princeton Junction and Back”.

  22. Robot Therapist said,

    December 12, 2022 @ 8:52 am

    "Baba Wawa – is there anything said or not?"

  23. Daniel Barkalow said,

    December 12, 2022 @ 3:30 pm

    It seems plausible to me that French reacted to a particular bird sounding a little like the word that means "bird" by giving it a name that's halfway in between. Among "oie" and "oiseau", the one that sounds more like the sound of a goose means "goose", and the one that sounds more like Latin "avis" means "bird".

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