“Wow.” “WOW.” “Just wow.”
The word has the ring of modern slang. But it dates to at least the early 16th century, when it first appeared in Scottish writing. It’s found in 1791, used by Scottish poet Robert Burns in “Tam O’Shanter,” as in: “She ventur’d forward on the light; And wow! Tam saw an unco sight!”
And there it is in the Annals of the First U.S. Congress: “Wow, this shows that Congress are not at liberty to make any alteration by law in the mode of appointing superior officers…”
It had a renaissance in the 1920s and is having another in the era of Twitter.
It is there that future linguists may someday find it reached a new zenith, at least in politics, during the impeachment proceedings against President Trump.
So, what is the meaning of “wow?” Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information, said wow basically means, “Oh, really?”
“Wow,” Wall Street Journal reporter Lindsay Wise said on Twitter. “Rand Paul submitted a question, reportedly naming the whistleblower. Chief Justice Roberts read it and said, ‘The presiding officer declines to read the question as written.'”
“Wow. Trump defense lawyer discussing how the Wall is being built as defense against impeachment,” the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser tweeted.
“Wow. Joe Biden argued against the Senate calling witnesses in 1999 impeachment memo,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said.
“Wow” seems apt for the impeachment of Trump, who frequently employs the word. Since 2012, the Trump Twitter Archive has recorded about 445 tweets by the president that use the word.
Trump uses it to express outrage. He uses it to mock Democrats. He uses it to brag, as in “Wow, a blowout jobs number just out.”
Wow is truly bipartisan. When Golden Globes host Ricky Gervais mocked left-leaning celebrities who use award season to lecture the nation on politics, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, reacted with a “Wow. “
Amid the polarizing trial, wow was one of the only things Republicans and Democrats agreed on.
And, wow, why not?
Its meaning can be applied to reflect any view. Nunberg said it is a “versatile phrase that can be positive or negative, self-ironizing (‘wow, awkward’) or sarcastic (‘oh, wow, I’m shocked!’), which is how it’s often used on Twitter to express mock astonishment at the effrontery or self-regard of someone else.”
“Wow is the ejaculation we use to express pure astonishment,” said linguist Nunberg.
Republicans use “wow” to make Democrats look bad, and vice versa, Nunberg said. Politicians are signaling to supporters that their political enemies’ arguments are so off-base, they’re unbelievable.
“It involves some kind of unmitigated chutzpah,” he added.
Actor Owen Wilson has used the word so many times, he’s become a “legend” for it. One fan on YouTube compiled every clip of Wilson saying “wow” 102 times in his movies into a 5 1/2-minute-long video. On Twitter, a fan joked that the “Wedding Crashers” star had made more than $100,000 saying “wow” in his movies.
Intellectuals like the word, as well as young fans of K-pop who are frequently wowed by their favorite singers. After an incensed reader authored a lengthy rebuttal to Joan Didion’s review of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” in the New York Review of Books, Didion responded with a simple, cutting “Oh, wow.”
“It’s been a maneuver for some time now,” Nunberg said, “To suggest that something defies belief, it’s so astonishing as to merit remark.”
“Wow” can also be a sarcastic rejoinder, as demonstrated frequently by historian and prominent Trump critic Kevin Kruse, who teaches at Princeton University. In the past two weeks alone, Kruse has used the word to mockingly praise Republicans at least seven times, while actually undermining them.
Using the word so often runs the risk of stripping the exclamation of its meaning, a phenomenon called “semantic satiation.” Say “wow” over and over, and it will stop making sense. Because of that, it’s possible that the frequent use on social media might be short-lived.
“Its roots in the language go back 500 years,” Nunberg said. “But it may have a more abbreviated run as a Twitter tic.”
If that happens, you can turn to one of wow’s close cousins, like “whoa.”