Mind your language


28 July 2016

1:00 PM

28 July 2016

1:00 PM

Veronica has become quite an addict of Twitter, just as the rest of the young are forsaking it. ‘It’s easy to hide from the trolls and death threats,’ she tells me encouragingly, ‘but there’s one thing that annoys me.’

The one thing is a cliché serving as click-bait for fellow twitterers. It takes the form of the exclamation: ‘Wow! Just wow!’ The hyperbole seldom lives up to expectations, and even when it does, it is diminished by having expressed the emotion in second-hand language.

I was surprised to find that wow does not belong to the 20th-century world of Batman’s Pow! and Bowie’s son Zowie. It far predates the ‘wow comedy song Say It With Liquor’, the hit of 1921. As an interjection, it is, I discover, first recorded in the translation of the Aeneid (under the title Eneados) by Gavin Douglas (who finished the job just before the battle of Flodden in 1513 and his subsequent appointment as a bishop). Douglas, the first person to translate the epic into English, did not imagine that Virgil exclaimed Wow! In his prologue to Book VI, he puts it in the mouth of the reader, who might be shocked by the superstitious pagan contents of this section:

All is bot gaistis and elrich fantasyis
Of browneis and of bogillis ful this boke:
Owt on thir wandrand speritis, wow! thou cryis.

I think this is more an exclamation of aversion than surprise. But it is notable that wow! began as Scottish usage. The OED invites us to compare it with vow as an interjection related to the asseveration I vow, used since Shakespeare’s day.

I’m not convinced of the connection, since the Scottish wow! seems in function more like phaw! or the Latin vae! (‘woe’). But, since vow counted as an oath, a minced form of it developed in America, in the form vum, to which the humorist Oliver Wendell Holmes referred in the middle of the 19th century: ‘The Deacon swore (as Deacons do), with an “I dew vum”.’

Twitterers seldom care much about using the right word, being happy with stereotyped emoticons or emojis as expressive labels. But a vow to eschew wow! would cheer up Veronica and other sensitive tweeters.

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