Hold On, Is It Whoa Or Woah?

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Hold up, slow down—should it be spelled it whoa or woah? The “proper” spelling of this commonly used interjection of surprise is widely debated.

Saddle up, because we’re about to break down the difference between whoa and woah by revealing which one came first and which of the two is considered the more standard choice.

Quick summary

Whoa is the much older spelling and is the one considered standard. Woah is a newer, alternate spelling that is often considered to be nonstandard or informal. The two terms are used to mean the same things, but woah is more likely to be found in informal contexts, such as in memes.

whoa vs. woah

The word whoa is an interjection that’s used in a few different ways. It can be used as a command to stop—like what you say when you’re riding a horse and you want it to slow down.

Even more commonly, it’s used as a general exclamation, especially one of surprise, amazement, or positive excitement. Whoa is used like other common interjections, such as wow: it can be used in place of a sentence (you can just say Whoa!) or at the beginning of one (as in Whoa, did you see that huge bird?)

Whoa may be used in repetition for emphasis, as in Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a second! Whoa is included in other phrases that express surprise or ask someone to stop or slow down as in Whoa, there! or Whoa, Nelly!

Whoa is also used in the phrase like whoa to indicate that something is really excellent or amazing.

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The word whoa has been used since at least the late 1400s and is thought to be a variant of the word ho, an interjection that was used to command horses to stop. Around the late 1800s, whoa began to be used more generally to express surprise or excitement.

Whoa is the original spelling. The spelling woah emerged more recently. The earliest evidence of woah in writing is thought to come from online message boards in the early 1980s. Indeed, the increase in the use of the spelling woah is often associated with digital communications.

Some people and style guides may consider woah to be an incorrect or nonstandard spelling of whoa due to its more recent emergence.

But does the spelling woah indicate another meaning besides whoa?

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woah meaning

Woah is simply an alternate spelling of whoa and can mean all of the same things that whoa does. Generally speaking, woah is more likely to appear in more informal contexts, such as social media posts, text messages, and memes, where nonstandard spellings and words are more common. In this way, the spelling woah may not “mean” something different than whoa, but its use is often intentional—as a way to indicate more informality than whoa.

How to remember how to spell whoa

If you want to remember to use the more popular and standard spelling whoa, just remember that it originated as a command for a horse to stop. In the word horse, the h is up front—a reminder that it has earlier placement in the original spelling whoa (as opposed to woah, where it comes at the end). To remember the vowel pattern, remember that your throat might become hoarse if you keep shouting whoa at your horse.

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