The WAGs back home

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WAG is a very unusual initialism that has evolved in the last decade or so in the language of British newspapers. It is a back-formation from an acronym. Its origin lies in the the initials of the phrase Wives And Girlfriends, the phrase used to refer to the often newsmaking entourage of female companions surrounding (in particular) British soccer-playing celebrities. But once the acronym was established, and said females (often glamorous models or wannabes much sought after by celebrity photographers) could be referred to collectively as the team's WAGs, a singular noun was created as a kind of back-formation, and today an individual woman in a relationship with a soccer player can be referred to as a WAG.

For a random example, see today's headline "WAG Carly Zucker has been hanging upside-down for hours in preparation for the jungle". (Ms Zucker "came to prominence in Germany during the 2006 World Cup as one of the best-known England WAGs, apparently.) Or (to take an example that is only 37 minutes old at the time of writing this), "WAG sends burglars packing after Blackburn's Zurab Khizanishvili is targeted". Notice that in the latter case the WAG is Zurab Khizanishvili's wife, and the headline could just as easily have said "Wife sends burglars packing" — indeed, the story begins "The wife of Blackburn defender Zurab Khizanishvili confronted burglars at their home, police said today."

What's peculiar about the formation, of course, that the link to the original phrase has been severed: there will not generally be any WAG who could be described as a Wife And Girlfriend, given the convention that attaining the former status cancels out the latter (as the odious Sir James Goldsmith candidly remarked after marrying Lady Annabel Birley, "When you marry your mistress, you create a job vacancy").


  1. Mike Anderson said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 11:03 am

    Before reading the post, I took a Wild-Assed Guess about the meaning of the acronym, and got a clean miss. My vocabulary is clearly obsolete. O tempora! O mores!

  2. Peter said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 11:06 am

    Given the connotations of vulgarity and massive undeserved wealth, I think it's only a matter of time before we get "I am no WAG, says football wife/girlfriend"

  3. Steve said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 11:09 am

    The British-Iranian comedian, Omad Djalili has noticed that you cannot be both a wife and a girlfriend, but the alternative 'Wives Or Girlfriends' makes an acronym that is only slightly less offensive than the N-word in British English, especially to those of similar ethnicity to Mr Djalili.

  4. Steven said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 11:21 am

    A minor point of clarification, but the Wives and Girlfriends of British soccer players don't tend to be "glamorous models" so much as "glamour models." Which implies something very different.

  5. greg said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 11:34 am

    Based on this use as a singular descriptor of a wife, should we perhaps make the acronym recursive? WAG = "WAG or Girlfriend"

  6. Oskar said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 11:47 am

    This is one of those times where my feminism starts to overtake my lingustic acceptance. That's a disgusting and misogynistic term, really reprehensible. People who use it should be ashamed of themselves.

  7. Bobbie said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

    So did Prince Charles marry his WAG? Yes, I know he does no play football / soccer, but Camilla was his "girlfriend" for years.

  8. jk said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

    When I first saw the WAG usage, I assumed it became popular as a way to allude to the behavior of these women without calling them slags.

  9. Tom Recht said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

    This makes possible a more concise version of the old nautical toast: "To WAGs, and may they never meet."

  10. bulbul said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 2:37 pm


  11. Martyn Cornell said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

    That's a disgusting and misogynistic term, really reprehensible.

    No worse, I suggest, than "groupie" – indeed, some would argue that to be a WAG is morally the better role of the two, since it involves commitment to a relationship …

  12. John Cowan said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

    The Grauniad style guide says: "Now in danger of overuse, and arguably sexist – although variations include HABs (husbands and boyfriends); for a full list, see the Wikipedia entry", which duly lists WWAGs, WOWs, WABs, CWAGs, RAGs, CHAPs, MAGs, SADs, and SWAGs, and notes that WAG has been borrowed into both French and German.

  13. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 4:37 pm

    The usage hasn't supplanted the older (but very localised) meaning of WAG: the Waikato Agility Group. Our late lamented border collie never got past WAG 1, the introductory "novice" course.

  14. blahedo said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 5:31 pm

    This is like having a single stoplight pepper, eh?

  15. mollymooly said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

    I think Prof Pullum's gloss of the term is perhaps misleading. The Wikipedia article is informative (though perhaps not linguistically accurate). The original WAGs were the wives and girlfriends of the squad of 23 players in the England team at the 2006 World Cup. There was one WAG per player (at most–maybe some players were unattached at the time). They were part of the official entourage, the same as at such salubrious events as the Ryder Cup. It was not a huge throng of groupies.

    The singular WAG is of course no more illogical than having HQs and RBIs as the plurals of HQ and RBI; suggesting the plural should be HQ or RsBI to represent "headquarters and "runs batted in" is a kind of etymological fallacy.

  16. DonBoy said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 6:13 pm

    Structurally this is similar to something I see occasionally, which is the use of "check and balance" to refer to a single power of a branch of government. In the (USAan) "system of checks and balances", some things are checks and some things are balances. For instance, the veto power is a check on the power of Congress. On the other hand, the fact that the House of Representatives must originate spending bills balances their power against, for instance, the fact that the Senate confirms judges and treaties — they just do different things. So to refer to any of these individual concepts as "a check and balance" is a drift in the meaning, and in the same way as the WAG example.

  17. qaminante said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 7:21 pm

    Although the abbreviation wasn't in use then, I first heard of this expression with respect to sports clubs (like yacht clubs) where notices of events would specify that wives and girlfriends were expected to help behind the bar. Presumably (male) club members, as a group, have wives and girlfriends in the same way in which they could be requested to leave jackets and coats in the cloakroom: I don't see any implication that an individual might have both!

  18. Joe Fineman said,

    November 18, 2008 @ 12:35 am

    Properly, the singular should be WOG, for "wife _or_ girlfriend"; but that has already been used up.

  19. Virtual Linguist said,

    November 18, 2008 @ 6:33 am

    I blogged on WAG here
    when Chambers Dictionary added WAG as a headword.
    At the time I said that you had to be a certain sort of partner to be labelled a WAG by the press ie you had to like partying, shopping and being in the limelight. No-one ever called Eric Cantona's wife a WAG (she lectured in French at Leeds University), or Graeme Lesaux's wife (who said she was looking forward to the World Cup in France so she could catch up on her reading while Graeme was away).
    I'm not sure that that's the case now. Claudine, wife of Robbie Keane of Liverpool, is glamorous, likes shopping and is labelled a WAG by the tabloids, but she does have a double first in economics and finance from University College, Dublin.
    On a more linguistic-related note, WAG is used as an adjective these days eg a WAG lifestyle.

  20. Jonathan Lennox said,

    November 18, 2008 @ 10:12 am

    Well, presumably, a single individual could be a wife of one celebrity and a girlfriend of another, but that might cause interpersonal conflict. Given that the term was originated by the tabloid newspapers, however, I'm sure they'd be thrilled.

  21. Theodore said,

    November 18, 2008 @ 1:34 pm

    Mike Anderson: I also knew WAG only as an acronym for Wild-Ass[ed]-Guess. (It's PC counterpart is ROM, "Rough Order of Magnitude"). My background is engineering; yours apparently is statistics. Maybe I need to watch more soccer.

  22. Paul said,

    November 18, 2008 @ 2:39 pm

    I too know WAG as wild-ass guess, along with other engineering/military acronyms like TLAR (that looks about right) and ROT (rule of thumb). The British pilots I flew with in Europe in the early 1980s used the same acronyms.

    WAG as wives & girlfriends is intentionally belittling, but then so are "entourage" and "posse." The only neutral term I can think of is "friends."

    WAG in this sense is too close to WOG for my tastes.

  23. Stephen Jones said,

    November 18, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

    Luckily for those who shun ambiguity it is rare that a WAG is also a wag.

  24. Nigel Greenwood said,

    November 18, 2008 @ 5:28 pm

    Re the Goldsmith quote:

    "Thus, if a man marries his housekeeper or his cook, the national dividend is diminished."

    AC Pigou, The Economics of Welfare I. iii

  25. Nicholas Isaacs said,

    November 18, 2008 @ 6:28 pm

    Looked at functionally, it seems like a particularly fine example of tabloid wordsmithery. WAG is a collective acronym, introducing a horrible tension between the singular noun and plural actor. Particularly when writing leaders and headlines. The word gets pluralised, assuming the final -s from 'girlfriends', before finally resolving into the nicely useable WAG.

  26. Richard T said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 11:00 am

    Unfortuately to many vulgar people in Britain the initial w of the acronym is pronounced sl. This is of course greatly deprecated by sensitive and educated comentators.

  27. mollymooly said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

    Replying to my own earlier comment: Some recent reading of mine, supported by a cursory Google test, suggests that MSM ("men who have sex with men", a term of art in HIV epidemiology), in the usage of those who use the term, has invariant plural (or perhaps I mean invariant singular).

    Probably this is due to the fact that is was coined in the plural, and is usually found in the plural, since epidemiologists are interested in groups of people. Nevertheless I am annoyed by the anomaly.

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