Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

W – Podictionary Word of the Day


iTunes users can subscribe to this podcast

Today I’ve chosen as our word of the day the name of a letter.

It seems curious to me that in English we call this letter double-U while in French they call it double-V.  It is in fact usually written more to resemble two Vs than two Us.

I see at Urbandictionary that the entry for W contains plenty of slurs against George Bush, but perhaps just as potent a criticism rails against whoever it was that decided to string three Ws together as the beginning of a web address.

What could be more clumsy than to give directions starting with WWW-dot…

Ambrose Bierce sort of anticipated this difficulty 100 years ago.  Here’s what he said about W in his Devil’s Dictionary:

W (double U) has, of all the letters in our alphabet, the only cumbrous name, the names of the others being monosyllabic. This advantage of the Roman alphabet over the Grecian is the more valued after audibly spelling out some simple Greek word, like epixoriambikos. Still, it is now thought by the learned that other agencies than the difference of the two alphabets may have been concerned in the decline of “the glory that was Greece” and the rise of “the grandeur that was Rome.” There can be no doubt, however, that by simplifying the name of W (calling it “wow,” for example) our civilization could be, if not promoted, at least better endured.

Thanks Ambrose.

Now in fact W was not part of the Roman alphabet.  We English invented W after adopting the 23 letters that came as a standard set from the Romans.

The Germanic pronunciations of Old English broke a bunch of rules that the alphabet was supposed to observe in Latin and so Old English speakers decided they needed a new letter to make the W sound.

At the time the Roman alphabet didn’t have a V either.

If you look at Roman script what appears there to be a V is actually their rendition of a U, so that’s why the thing is called a double-U.

But Old English speakers weren’t all that stupid and they quickly figured out how “cumbrous” this new letter W was so they pitched it and replaced it with another new letter with the same function.

They called this new letter wyn.

It was great.  Imagine giving my web address as wyn wyn wyn dot podictionary dot com.

Not only is it shorter, it sounds more winsome.

This new letter looked something like a pregnant p with a short leg.  As such it took up far less space on the printed page.  W is by far the widest piece of typeface.

The more you think of it the more of a loser this W seems to be.

So why do we still use it?

It was that damn William the Conqueror.

While the wise Old English had ditched W, the French had adopted it, particularly the French with some kind of Germanic roots.

In Paris they adopted it too but then slurred W into G so we ended up with both warrantee and guarantee, ward and guard.

But William and his Norman horde loved the W and cruelly imported the damn letter back into English with French in 1066.

Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *