There is wisdom that is like, whoa

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From today's SMBC (click on the image for the full panel):

The OED's entry for whoa hasn't been updated since 1924, but the Wiktionary entry has

2. An expression of surprise.

Most examples of "like, whoa" involve quotative be like, as in this gem from 1990:

Nick B. Williams Jr., "Woman's Spirited Escape: 'We Were, Like, Whoa! So Weird' : Refugees: San Fernando Valley native braved tanks and table tennis on trek from Kuwait to Saudi Arabia", L.A. Times 8/29/1990:

The Iraqi army came to Kuwait four days before Michelle Mateljan of Studio City, Calif., was to fly out for a vacation in Spain.

"I was so bummed," she said Tuesday.

Now safe in Bahrain, Mateljan recounted her ordeal, including a final scare at the last Iraqi checkpoint at the Saudi Arabian border.

"There were six or seven soldiers, and we thought, 'This is it,' " the 22-year-old brunette recalled over a plate of pasta. "So what happens? They gave us a can of beans and some chocolate bars. We were, like, whoa! So weird."

But I'm pretty sure that I heard "like whoa man", with the discourse-particle version of like, more than once in the 1960s.

An intermediate step along whoa's journey from horse-command to expression of surprise would have been a metaphorical request to stop or reverse a horse-less action or interaction, e.g.

Sidney Kingsley, "Night Life: In Three Acts" (publication dated 1966, but the play was performed on Broadway in 1962):

I imagine that this usage must have begun pretty much as early as the horse-command did, but a quick search didn't turn up any examples from Melville's time.

The aftercomic for today's SMBC is also worth a linguistic look.


  1. Charles in Vancouver said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 7:07 pm

    And don't forget singer Mya's 2003 hit song, "My Love Is Like…Wo". Although I suppose with that spelling the meaning is ambiguous!

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 7:22 pm

    Saw the whole thing, dude. First you were all like whoa, and we were like whoa, and you were like whoa…

  3. Richard said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 7:23 pm

    In the late '60s and early '70s, "whoa" was quite common in the San Francisco area.

    It could occur with like introducing it: "And I'm all, like, 'Whoa man!' And then she's all, like…"

    Or they could occur together, as part of an exclamation: "Like, whoa man! That was far out!"

    And no, we rarely, said "groovy!" unless we were speaking ironically…

  4. Lazar said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 7:48 pm

    In pop culture, I think "whoa" is indelibly linked to Keanu Reeves – for both his exaggerated slacker "whoa" from Bill and Ted, and his more deadpan "whoa" from The Matrix.

  5. David said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 8:05 pm

    I can remember when people would say "Hold your horses!" In my mental geography this blurs into the shorter "Whoa!," perhaps, for me, in the 1970s.

  6. David said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 8:15 pm

    On Google Ngrams "whoa" is too common relative to "hold your horses" to compare visually. But both seemed to have accelerated around 1970. It's interesting to compare Whoa (capitalized) with whoa (uncapitalized). The capitalized takes off around 1970. "Hold your horses" vs. "hold your horses" shows somethign similar.

  7. Suburbanbanshee said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 10:06 pm

    The Boy Allies with Haig in Flanders, or, The Fighting Canadians of Vimy Ridge (1922) have a kid breaking off his sentence and saying, "Whoa!" in response to the tank stopping suddenly.

    That's pretty much the Bill and Ted context for about half the stuff they say: "Stop and look at what has startled or amazed me."

    I guess that it's a short stop to "Like, whoa" from there.

  8. Suburbanbanshee said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 10:07 pm

    Oops. 1918.

  9. Suburbanbanshee said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 10:18 pm

    Lomax's folksong collection, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1916), has "Whoa" as a possible non-stopping, human-directed exclamation in "The Cowboy's Christmas Ball" — namely, "Whoa, fellers, let's stampede."

  10. Bobbie said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 10:36 pm

    I keep thinking of the popular song "Volare". It always sounded like they were singing "Whoa Whoa" in the chorus.

  11. maidhc said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 11:12 pm

    "Whoa Nellie!" used to be a popular expression back around the early 20th century.

  12. Suburbanbanshee said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 11:28 pm

    But really, it's like wow, isn't it? Wow, whoa, same thing.

    [(myl) As of 1928 (the last time the entry was updated), the OED calls wow "Chiefly Scottish", and traces its etymology to a shortening of "I vow!".

    So there might well be some recent psychological traffic between whoa and wow, but they came from different sources.]

  13. Peter said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 3:21 am

    Since this is Language Log, I was surprised not to see any mention of the (?possible) linguistic incongruence of the SMBC: most (?all) pronunciations of whoa I’m familiar with are quite distinct from woe, and so calling it “…changing the spelling…” seems a bit of a stretch. Did other readers have the same reaction, or are whoa and woe actually homophones for some?

    (Of course, yes, it’s a comic, and a good one. But while we’re discussing it here, may as well raise some spectres of hair-splitting…)

    [(myl) A phonetic discussion of aspirated /w/ here, and there's some discussion of prescriptive attitudes here; but most English dialects now participate in the wine-whine merger, as discussed in Wikipedia:

    The merger is essentially complete in England, Wales, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, and is widespread in the United States and Canada. In accents with the merger, pairs like wine/whine, wet/whet, weather/whether, wail/whale, Wales/whales, wear/where, witch/which etc. are homophonous. The merger is not found in Scotland, Ireland (except in the popular speech of Dublin, although the merger is now spreading more widely), and parts of the U.S. and Canada. The merger (or the lack thereof) is not usually stigmatized except occasionally by very speech-conscious people […]

    According to Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006: 49),[3] while there are regions of the U.S. (particularly in the Southeast) where speakers keeping the distinction are about as numerous as those having the merger, there are no regions where the preservation of the distinction is predominant […] Throughout the U.S. and Canada, about 83% of respondents in the survey had the merger completely, while about 17% preserved at least some trace of the distinction.

    But it's not clear whether whoa reliably had [hw] anyhow, since the OED cites variant spellings "woah", "wo", etc. going back to the 16th C. ]

  14. Oskar said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 3:42 am

    Surely the most notable user of "Whoa!" in the last few decades is young master Joey Lawrence?

  15. John said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 4:10 am

    Surely people still use it in the "slow down/stop talking" sense, don't they? With accompanying raised hands as if trying to placate a horse…

    Suburbanbanshee's point is interesting. Does "wow" pre-date "whoa" in the sense of amazement, and if so could the latter's meaning have drifted to meet a word it phonetically resembled?

    [(myl) The OED traces back to the 16th C. the Scottish wow as "An exclamation, variously expressing aversion, surprise or admiration, sorrow or commiseration, or mere asseveration". (As in "Wow! that's braw news.") This might have influenced American usage through Scots-Irish immigration in the 19th C., I guess.]

  16. Ginger Yellow said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 4:45 am

    Here's a Separated By A Common Language post from a few years back on the spelling of "whoa" in the US and UK, which itself puns on woe/whoa.

  17. Lazar said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 5:24 am

    @John: Yeah, "whoa" has both meanings for me, although the surprise/amazement meaning is the one that I think of first.

  18. Rodger C said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 7:19 am

    I don't have the wine/whine merger, but I've always pronounced "woe" and "whoa" identically.

  19. Phillip Minden said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 7:44 am

    In American television shows, you regularly hear [wou] or ['wo:uwouwou] used as "waaaait, wait, wait/what was that?!/now – not to be a bore, but that did seem a tad brusque, don't you think", in other words as a stopper, quite close to the original and current meaning in riding.

  20. /df said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 8:10 am

    Not just early 20C: down by (what's left of) Lake Mono you'll find the weirdly but well combined Tioga Gas Mart + Whoa Nellie Deli (

  21. Theophylact said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 8:56 am

    Seems to me that when I was young (some seventy tears ago) it was pronounced identically with "hoe" and was the antonym of "giddyap".

  22. Theophylact said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 8:57 am

    "Years", of course.

  23. Chris said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 9:49 am

    Unfortunately, many younger people insist it is spelled woah.

  24. Eric P Smith said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 11:22 am

    I'm the same as Rodger C: I haven't got the wine/whine merger, and I pronounce 'whoa' with [w] not [ʍ]. I can't think of any other word where I pronounce 'wh' with with [w] not [ʍ]. To me, therefore, the spelling of 'whoa' is anomalous.

  25. JS said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

    Via Google Books, Charles Selby, Maximums and Speciments of William Muggins… (1894):
    "'Woah!' says the old boy, putting down his pipe on a table ahind him, and pulling himself hup in his chair as if he war stopping a coach; 'woah a bit, lad: that aynt so easily done as said […]"

  26. David Morris said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 3:30 pm

    Tintin's dog Snowy says 'woah'. The only reference I can find at 6.30 am over breakfast is

  27. Theophylact said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

    Yeah, but that's the French equivalent of "woof".

  28. David Morris said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 9:20 pm

    Yes, but why does Snowy woof in French when everyone else in the English version talks in English?

  29. Roger Lustig said,

    September 25, 2013 @ 8:04 am

    @Phillip, among others:
    Double-take is now also expressed as, "wait, what?, which doesn't seem as pointed toward the other person's rhetoric as "Whoa" and extended versions.

  30. Ben Hemmens said,

    September 25, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

    If I remember correctly, Snowy usually goes "Wouah!"

    Why? Possibly because the translator was paid peanuts or wasn't asked.

  31. OrenWithAnE said,

    September 25, 2013 @ 10:06 pm

    Y'all are way out of date, the compound "like whoa" as an intensifier, not in the surfer sense of being an interjection.

    Surfer: I was like whoa, she's pretty (I was in disbelief that she was so pretty)
    Modern: She's pretty like whoa (she is extremely pretty).

    Surfer: She said she was being evicted, and I'm like whoa (I was in disbelief).
    Modern: She said she was being evicted, and I said that's shitty like whoa (that is very shitty).

    See also, whoa

  32. Joe said,

    September 27, 2013 @ 1:21 pm

    Being originally from the English Midlands I don’t have a strong wine/whine distinction (though twenty-four years of living in Scotland has had some influence on that), but I definitely pronounce “whoa” (elongated vowel) quite differently from “woe” (short vowel).

  33. Joe said,

    September 27, 2013 @ 2:02 pm


    Saying those phrases out loud, I heard:

    Surfer: I was like whoa, she's pretty (I was in disbelief that she was so pretty)
    Modern: She's pretty like wow (she is extremely pretty).

    Surfer: She said she was being evicted, and I'm like whoa (I was in disbelief).
    Modern: She said she was being evicted, and I said that's shitty like wow (that is very shitty).

    That is: “like whoa” ([stopped in my tracks / stupefied / stunned] in disbelief) –v– “like wow” (asseveration*).

    Not that I am perhaps the best judge, being someone for whom use of the discourse-particle “like” is the linguistic equivalent of “Dad Dancing”.

    * I love that after every visit to LL Plaza I leave with a gift: in this case a new word – forgive my childlike eagerness to use it.

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