The Real History and Origin of Woot and w00t

There’s room in any dictionary for all parts of speech, and if the amount of mail sent by interested word buffs is any indication, woot—an interjection or exclamation of celebration or revelry—is a favorite.

It comes in a variety of spellings offline and on. The most common, woot, whoot, and w00t are, for our purposes, variations of the same lexical item, especially since the aspirated aitch is growing less common in American English. The latter variant, w00t, has two zeroes in place of ohs, a common characteristic of words originating from online entertainment, especially in multiplayer games, where goofy and ironic l33tspeak sometimes prevails. Other online variations are w00+ and w007.

As is the case for most words, the most popular question about woot is “Where did it come from?” Unfortunately, its origins are disputed and, also like most words, it’s impossible to say with any certainty what the true origins are. Trying to come close to the term’s roots is a game of odds, Occam’s razor, and believability.

After a couple of examples of “whoot” or “woot” as an onomatopoeic representation of video game sounds in news stories from 1982, the earliest clear-cut use of the word found so far is in the name of the Atlantic City, N.J., entertainment tabloid The Whoot! which shows up in 1988 as a sponsor of the ugliest bartender contest in Philadelphia. In 2003 The Whoot! changed its name to the Atlantic City Weekly. Current AC Weekly editor Michael Epifanio says that The Whoot was so-named by founder Lew Steiner after “night owls who would pull all-nighters to scout out the bars, clubs and restaurants and then send the publication out to print.”

Other unlikely origins for the term have been proposed. In discussing the web site of consumer-electronics retailer Woot.com, a 2004 story in Ad Age claimed that the word originated of the phrase “Wow! loot” in the role-playing board game Dungeons and Dragons. The game, created in 1973 and released to the public in 1974, is unlikely as a point of origin. The Ad Age article (besides other sources referring to it) is the only source so far found that connects the word to the term in more than 30 years of the game’s existence. Given the popularity of D&D in the Eighties, it should have, by all rights, showed up in connection with the term woot long before 2004.

A related claim is that it came from multiplayer online games like Everquest and Ultima Online where it is said to have been associated with the phrase “wondrous loot,” or even with the same “wow, loot!” as in D&D, when a player’s character came across gold or wealth in the game. It’s also been credited to the online game Quake, where it is said to have been associated with the sound a player’s avatar makes when it jumps. While it is entirely possible that these games, which had tens of thousands of registered users, could have helped popularize the term, the first written evidence for woot occurred well before these games existed. Quake, the oldest of the three, was first released in 1996.

Another—and, frankly, halfhearted—claim, is that it comes from the Scottish interjection “hoot!” There is indeed such an interjection, according to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, and in various forms it dates as far back as 1698, appearing in such notable works as Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel Kidnapped. The problem here, though, is that the Scots hoot! is negative. It’s not a crowing comment of satisfaction and delight, it’s “an exclamation used to express annoyance, disgust, incredulity or remonstrance or in dismissal of an opinion expressed by someone else,” the same as tut! or fie! While such inversions of meaning are not unheard of—nice essentially reversed its meaning over 600 years, going from meaning “silly or foolish” to “pleasant, kind, or neat in appearance”—they are not common and, like nice, take a long time. From the first citation the DSL has in 1698 to the latest in 1933, the Scots hoot shows no signs of changing.

More implausible as the origin is the backronym We Own(ed) the Other Team, also said to come from use in unnamed multiplayer video games. A backronym is a word interpreted as an acronym after that word has already been around a while. We know the word existed before the phrase because the phrase doesn’t show up in online discussions groups until March 2003. The longer phrase easily could have existed in multiplayer game chatter before then, but in general, once a term is popular in game chatter, it quickly also shows up in web and Usenet discussions related to the game, which is not the case here.

Elsewhere woot is claimed to come from root, the user name given in Unix-based operating systems to the administrator’s account. This lacks any supporting evidence at all, except for dubious claims of “I remember,” and is rebuffed here for the sake of completeness.

The most likely explanation, as is usually the case, is far simpler. Woot is, with some caveats, probably derived from and most likely popularized by the dance catch phrase of 1993, “whoot, there it is!” In clubs and on dance floors across the country, in half-time shows and in baseball stadiums, “whoot, there it is” and plain old “woot!” were shouted long and loud by millions. It was used by hype men at hip-hop shows, dancers and cheerleaders at ball games, DJs at discos, and probably by ball-callers at bingos.

If woot had any kind of real presence before the songs—as something other than the name of the publication from Atlantic City—it has not yet been found. As a clear-cut term of celebration or revelry, it simply did not show up in the trillions of words published before 1993 and currently archived online and in periodical databases. Even if it did exist and for some reason did not show up in print, the “whoot, there it is” dance catch phrase certainly reinforced any pre-existing usage. That all relevant citations for the term appear after 1993 supports this.

The story of woot, as we know it, is simple. There were two similar songs on the charts that year. In April “Whoot There It Is” by 95 South (Ichiban Records) was the number seven best-selling song in Central Florida, according, to the Orlando Sentinel. “Whoomp! (There It Is),” by Tag Team (Life Records) out of Atlanta showed up at number 15 on Billboard’s R&B singles 27 May 1993 and stayed for 45 weeks on the Billboard top 100, where it reached number 2. It was the more popular of the two songs.

Both tunes came out of the dance music scene, where it was chanted by crowds, much like “the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire,” in the clubs. By June 1993 both songs were popular enough across the country that USA Today and other newspapers wrote about their similarities—they are strikingly alike, fuddy-duds were already complaining about overdosing on the new catch-phrase, and good-natured arguments took place about which was the canonical form, whoot or whoomp. “Whoops, there it is” was another, less-common variant. (The three variants, incidentally, are good evidence that the term was originally oral.)

Jay-Ski, who produced “Whoot, There It Is,” said in a 1997 interview, “There were eight versions of that going around. The idea came from the streets, and even though the 95 South one might have been recorded first, it was Tag Team who released it earlier. I sold three-and-a-half million of mine, though. And now I’ll be sitting at home watching a football game and hearing it played in the stadium—that’s a big thrill. We even were invited to perform it at the top of the fifth inning in the fifth game of the ’93 World Series between the Phillies and Toronto, and that was the best crowd that I’ve ever performed for.”

Cecil “DC” Glenn and Steve “Roll’n” Gibson, the two men in the musical act “Tag Team,” say in the book Colorado Rocks by G. Brown (Pruett Publishing Co., 2004, p. 128) that they picked up the “Whoomp” in their song from the Arsenio Hall show:

“People had been saying ‘There it is’ forever. Everybody in Arsenio Hall’s television audience used to the ‘Wooof’ chant. We put that together with the ‘There it is’ dance-floor chant we were hearing at the club.

Gibson recalled that DC said, “Oh, man, we need to do a song called, ‘Whoom, there it is.”

“All I said was, ‘How do you spell it?”

The claim that their “whoomp” came from Arsenio’s audience chant should not necessarily be taken at face value: memories are notoriously off-kilter when it comes to remembering such things. They are clouded by wishful thinking, cognitive dissonance, and a desire to be helpful.

But the show aired from 1989 to 1994 and there’s no doubt that the “woofing” of the Arsenio audience was much-imitated on television shows such as Saturday Night Live, that the similar-sounding chant “whoot whoot whoot” or “whoomp whoomp whoomp” was shouted across the country, and that, for a time, “whoot, there it is!” was an immensely popular catch phrase anywhere in America where people gathered to party or celebrate.

It was also used by Julia Roberts’s character in the 1990 movie Pretty Woman, where her low class use “whoo(f) whoo(f)” was contrasted to the refined setting she was using it in. She even does the hand-gesture of the Arsenio audience.

It’s my guess all that is left of that fad now is the neat little celebratory word “woot!” used mainly an exclamation of joy at minor victories and unexpected pleasures, with a slightly less common use as a flat sarcastic remark in response to a minor disappointment or letdown. It’s enough.

Posted December 12, 2007

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