Dear Word Detective: I’ve seen the word “woot” (sometimes spelled, more originally I have gathered, “w00t”), as an expression of joy for some prize or treasure, or something valuable that was otherwise unexpected. I first heard (or read) the term in the chat ramblings from an online game around, say 2004; when I asked about it, I was told it originated somewhere in the world of MMORPG’s, “massively multiplayer online roleplaying games” (or “many men online roleplaying girls,” a backronym that often proves true), but I’d like a real sleuth to see what he can find. — Josh.
Oh boy. Y’know, every so often it strikes me just how weird the internet has always been. I guess humanity, having pretty much exhausted the novelty of exotic lands and cultures, collectively decided to create a whole new bizarre dimension of reality where the Id could run wild and all bets were off. That whole “gender impersonation” thing, for example, strikes me as very strange. Then again, I’ve never played any online games, or, in fact, any computer game more sophisticated than Pong. Life is too short and so am I. Heck, I can hardly reach the keyboard most days.
“Woot” (as I will spell it to maintain an aura of sanity) is an exclamation roughly equivalent to “Hooray!” or “Whoopee!” Often (but not necessarily originally, as we shall see) constructed with two zeros in place of the “o”s (“w00t!”), it’s been a staple of online discussion groups, gaming communities, and bulletin boards since at least the 1990s. “W00t” spelled with zeros is one of the more well-known items of “leet” or “leetspeak,” a loose system of alternative orthography popular in hacker and gaming circles at that time in which certain letters of words are replaced with non-alphabetic characters usually vaguely resembling the letter (“7″ for “L,” for instance) or constructs of multiple symbols thought to resemble the letter (e.g., “/\/\” for “M”). The name “leet” (or “l33t,” if you’re drinking the Kool-Aid) is short for “elite,” a privileged status in early online gaming communities. “Leet” was officially over among the cool years ago, and today is used largely to mock hacker-wannabes (who are derided as “H4x0rs”).
The earliest citation found so far for “woot” in print comes from 1993, and a number of explanations offered for the word trace it to shortenings of or acronyms for various phrases supposedly popular among online gamers, such as “we own the other team” or “wondrous loot” (for “treasure” won during such games). But these theories, along with the one tying “woot” to the “root” account used by administrators of Unix computer systems, all lack any solid evidence. In several cases, in fact, the phrases supposedly “behind” the word only appeared long after “woot” itself was popular.
Fortunately, lexicographer Grant Barrett has done some heavy lifting for us on the subject of “woot,” and he makes a compelling case for his theory on his website (at http://www.doubletongued.org/index.php/grantbarrett/comments/the_real_history_and_origin_of_woot_and_w00t/).
Barrett traces “woot” to the catch phrase “Whoot, there it is!”, which became a nationwide craze in the US in 1993. In fact, there were two popular hip-hop songs capitalizing on the phrase released that year, “Whoot There It Is” by the group 95 South, and “Whoomp! (There It Is)” by Tag Team. The Tag Team song was the more successful, spending 45 weeks in the Billboard Top 100, and the group says that the “Whoomp” was in part drawn from the famous “woof woof” chant of the audience at the Arsenio Hall TV show around the same time. So if Barrett is right, and I think he is, “woot” was never short for, or an acronym for, anything. It’s just the sound of a someone having a good time.