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December 31, 2013

The Internet's most variously spelled word

This past summer, the "Today" show used its Twitter account to share some news about the birth of an unusually heavy child. Along with a link to its story about the immense infant, "Today" included for its more than 2 million followers this brief note: "Woah baby! 13-lb. 7-oz. baby delivered in Spain."

It was a typical "Today" show tweet — punchy, conversational, vanilla — but it caught the eye of New York magazine senior editor Dan Amira. Unmoved by word of a gigantic newborn, Amira — who recently left New York magazine for a job at "The Daily Show" — focused on something smaller (much smaller): the placement of an "h." In retweeting the message, Amira affixed a brief, pointed comment: "It's 'whoa.' "

He drove home the same point a week later when @HuffPostEdu tweeted a link accompanied by the sentence, "Whoah: Professors get bulletproof whiteboards." Political reporter Chris Cillizza heard from Amira when he decided to go with "WHOAH" in a tweet about the unusually early availability of pumpkin spice latte this year, and Time's Zeke Miller got called out by Amira on two different occasions during four weeks of whoa tweets. Although he had moved on to other topics by September, Amira's half-prescriptivist, half-hilarious crusade shone light on a notable fact about 2013: It was the year of everybody spelling "whoa" a zillion different ways.

Without question, this has been an especially whoa-full year. But why? "Whoa" is hardly a new word; it dates back to at least the early 17th century. At that time it was used mostly in shouted form and was intended to garner the attention of someone in the distance. Around the the mid-1800s, people began using "whoa" to halt forward-moving horses, and by the latter half of the 20th century it had morphed into an expression for conveying alarm, surprise, or advanced interest. (Messrs. Bill and Ted solidified the strength of this usage in 1989, Joey Lawrence sealed the deal during the '90s, and Keanu Reeves reappeared without Bill S. Preston, Esq. to help usher the word into the new millennium via "The Matrix.")

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