Last weekend marked the kickoff of Coachella 2012. Either you know that's a huge music and arts and music and music festival, or you're new to L.A. And while this is the first year it's happening for two weekends, size doesn't matter, because one weekend or two, there's something I can guarantee will be on the lips of everyone in attendance. No, I'm not talking substances, I'm talking sound: “Whoo!”
Yeah, that's right, the edgy outburst that Merriam-Webster tells us is used to express sudden excitement, astonishment or relief. I mean, who wouldn't “whoo!” to be wowed by the likes of Abe Vigoda (the band), Bon Iver and SNL-heartthrob Florence and the Machine?
While many an Angeleno can tell you that Coachella has been around (officially) since 1999, who can tell you when “whoo” came about?
The Oxford English Dictionary (or, as its whoo-ers better know it, the OED) notes that its oldest recorded use was in 1608 by Thomas Middleton in his comedic stage play Mad World, My Masters, whose title later became the basis for the title of Stanley Kramer's 1963 film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
In Middleton's play, Mrs. Hairbrain is speaking with the Courtesan, a prostitute who poses as Mrs. Hairbrain's friend and moral instructor but is, in fact, working to corrupt her. Desperate to explain that her angry husband waits outside the door, Mrs. Hairbrain says, “Will you but heare a word from mee?” to which the Courtesan replies, “Whooh,” seeming to express her astonishment at this outburst before letting the wife go on.
Personally, I'm a fan of the following quote from 1915, “Whoohoo it's so good, Mickey!” (from the novel Michael O'Halloran by Gene Stratton-Porter), which, if you don't mind my ridiculous speculation, may just have been the inspiration for Toni Basil's New Wave song “Mickey,” which debuted a mere 67 years later.
But it's in 1844 that “whoo” was first used with a meaning most similar to ours today. Charles Wilkes uses it in his Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition During the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842, which — you'd never guess by its vague and unspecific title — chronicles an expedition dispatched by the United States during the years … you get the idea. The expedition was to promote trade and protect the big-time whaling and seal hunting industries in the Pacific. Yes, this is the same page-turner that is rumored to have been a reference for Herman Melville while writing Moby-Dick. Wilkes writes of island natives, “At the end of each dance they finished with a loud whoo, or screech.”
This also tells us that “whoo” is hardly exclusive to the English language. After all, people have been exclaiming for joy since, well, before they were people. Between the 8th and 11th centuries, “Hwat!” was used to get readers' attention in that epic page-turner Beowulf.
But well before that, Greeks and Romans had much to “whoo” about. Come on, democracy? Wine? You say, “Whoo!”? I say, “Word.” The Romans said, “Hui!” As in Act 2, Scene 1, of Terence's The Eunuch, “Hui! Universum triduum?” which translates to, “Whoo! An entire three days!” (There was no “whoo” in ancient Latin since there was no w, but “hui” comes close).
But the Greek omega, ὦ, looks an awful lot like a w, and pronounced as a long “o” (as in “low” and “blow”) sometimes with a breathy “h” sound preceding it — and that one letter was indeed used as an exclamation to express surprise, joy or pain. Liddell and Scott's much-relied-upon A Greek-English Lexicon confirms that the omega often expressed these emotions all by itself, although at times it can be found coupled with other words to form expressions familiar to us today, like, “ὦ Ἡράκλεις” (“Oh, Hercules!) and other variations, such as, “Oh my God(s)!”
And you know who else “whoo”ed? The owls. Well, they're most frequently recorded as going “hoo,” but the OED cites “whoo” as a variant of their nocturnal cry. When asked about “whoo,” Sandra Disner, a linguistics Ph.D. and language consultant affiliated with USC, comments, “The OED gives one of its definitions as 'a hoot,'” but adds, “I don't see how an owl's mournful cry relates to the exultant 'whoo!'”
So now that you know we've been “whoo”-ing for ages, you're probably wondering why. Why, at concerts, do we hear more “whoo's” than “yeah's”? Or “ah's”? I'm no Ph.D., but it seems it could be as simple as definitions and patterns of usage. The OED defines “yeah” as simply a casual pronunciation of “yes.” And its origin is colloquial, from the U.S., as recently as 1905, when it was defined in the reference text Dialect Notes. It was practically brand-new in 1925 when F. Scott Fitzgerald used it in The Great Gatsby: 'That's a very interesting idea.' 'Yeah.'” So it hasn't been around as long as “whoo” and, in all its affirmative glory, it's not nearly as exultant as the word that, by definition, expresses sudden excitement.
“Ah,” suspected to originate from Old French, has six definitions. While it was used as early as 1580 to mean “dislike, aversion…or exultation over misfortune,” it was only in 1827 that it was first recorded expressing surprise, wonder or admiration, and that was in Benjamin Disraeli's Vivian Grey: “A-a-h! what a box! a Louis-quatorze, I think?” So, while you might be inclined to express surprise, wonder or admiration at Coachella this weekend, more people will probably spend more of their time being excited, and that may be the simple reason why you'll hear more “whoo's.”
More recently, the rival of Merriam and Webster, y'know, Urban and Dictionary, confirmed that “whoo” is a term of excitement, especially when beating death, like when you say (and you know you do), “Whoo! What'd I tell you Kevin, huh?” But it's interesting that same excited “whoo” drops the “H” when compounded to form the uber-descriptive noun “woo-girl,” “a female who is often found going 'WOOOOOO!' in public … most often exhibited while in the presence of other woo-girls,” and cited as a mating call often observed at concerts and spring break destinations. (Coachella, anyone?) And since there's no Oxford Sitcom Dictionary yet, I'll go on record as citing the 2008 airing of How I Met Your Mother's “Wooo!” episode as a historical moment for the interjection.
In the episode, Robin, single and jobless, wants to spend more quality girl-time with married Lily, who invites Robin to a work friend's party, only to discover that this colleague, Jillian, is secretly a “woo-girl.” Robin then joins Jillian's circle of “whoo”-ing friends and Lily feels left out. Barney comforts Lily with the thought that woo-girls are needed for the existence of such wonderful things as Girls Gone Wild, the body-glitter industry and tiny cowboy hats being worn by more than just tiny cowboys. But Lily can't sit this one out and tries to become a “woo-girl” herself. When she's forced to admit it just doesn't suit her, Robin, an amateur girlinguist (one who studies the language of girls) translates the “whoo's” for Lily, pointing out that they're secret confessions: “I cry in the shower!” “I've never been on a second date!” “What if I never get to be a mom?!” Lily can't “whoo” because she's, well… happy.
So, I wonder, are the ladies still using this outburst as a way to let off steam when their lives aren't all that? Or is that just one of many potential definitions to a word that's mostly used as a way to express your joy at seeing Florence and the Machine. Readers, it's your turn to do linguistic research. When you hear that mating call this weekend and next, please, do academia a favor — hit on someone. And report back.