The origins of “woo”

Jim Lippard is tracking down the origin of the term “woo”. He finds a few references (mostly to “woo-woo” or “woo woo”) in the 1990s, and then a gap until this, from The North British Review, vol. 1, no. 11, p. 340, in a discussion of “Our Scottish fishermen” from 1842:

When beating up in stormy weather along a lee-shore, it was customary for one of the men to take his place on the weather gunwale, and there continue waving his hand in a direction opposite to the sweep of the sea, using the while a low moaning chant, Woo, woo, woo, in the belief that the threatening surges might be induced to roll past without breaking over. We may recognize in both these singular practices the first beginnings of mythologic belief–of that religion indigenous to the mind, which can address itself in its state of fuller development to every power of nature as to a perceptive being, capable of being propitiated by submissive deference and solicitation, and able, as it inclined, either to aid or injure.

Farbeit for me to question the antiquity of that reference, but there’s a 144 year gap between that rather obscure usage and the instances he finds in the ’90s where “woo-woo” is taken as not needing definition.

I looked on Lexis Nexis, and found a few earlier references in the same vein. A Halloween, 1996, report from Charles Osgood’s Sunday morning program began:

Welcome to ‘woo-woo,’ that twilight zone where paranormal is par for the discourse and paranoia is common sense; where television has grown up from creepie-crawlies and action comics to hardware and mysticism; from Captain Video to cyborgs; from Tom Corbett to telepaths; from space cadets to psychics. I have been out there in network ‘woo-woo.’ I bring back bloody butter on a crust of dread.

Here, the term takes a specifically supernatural sense, lending credence to theories that it is an onomatopoetic reference to the theremin soundtracks to horror movies.

But an article in the St. Petersburg Times from 1986 takes a different tack in reviewing astrology-themed cookbooks:

Are cookbook publishers that desperate? … This season they present us with two “new and unique” horoscopic cookbooks – A Taste of Astrology by Lucy Ash and Cosmic Cuisine by Tom Jaine – adding another dimension to star-inspired cookbooks.

Both authors are British (of undisclosed signs) but they are, most uncannily, on much the same woo-woo wavelength. They do not suggest casing out a potential romantic partner according to sign language.

This is the earliest use of the term in this sense that I can find in Lexis Nexis. The use of the term wavelength might again suggest an analogy to the eerie electromagnetic sound and production of theremin music, or could be a reference to some other onomatopoeia, or indeed a literal reference to saying “woo-woo” to ward off waves! Then again, use of “wavelength” to signify how someone’s mind is working can be traced to at least 1927, and was in common use through the ’70s and ’80s.

One interesting early reference I found was from a 1979 AP report on a US visit by Pope John Paul II or “The John Travolta of the Holy Spirit [as] some call him in Rome”:

In Madison Square Garden he made cooing sounds, “Woo … Woo, Woo … Woo, Woo, Woo,” after 19,000 kids, products of the discipline uniquely imposed by teaching nuns, addressed the supreme pastor of the Roman Catholic Church with this chant:

“Rack ‘em up, stack ‘em up, bust ‘em in two! Holy Father, we’re for you!”

The pope’s “Woo, Woo” was the Polish equivalent of “Wow.” The youngsters couldn’t know that, but it spurred them into cheering that would make a Swiss guard drop his halberd. It didn’t do a lot for the U.S. Secret Service either.

I don’t tend to think that’s the term’s origin, but it’s closer to the earliest published uses of it than the 1842 reference. For what it’s worth, the earliest article using the word “woo” to describe a theremin is not until 1995, in a Guardian article titled: “Here a woo, there a woo, everywhere a woo-woo; Alex Bellos meets one woman and her theremin.” Similar references are common from that point forward.

Taking another tack, I checked uses of “woo woo” or “woo-woo” in JSTOR, but found nothing really apropos.

Comments

  1. #1 Jim Lippard
    May 6, 2010

    Josh:

    In the comments on my post I note that I’ve found use of “woo woo” as a sound in ghost stories going back to 1953.

  2. #2 Alex
    May 6, 2010

    “The use of the term wavelength might again suggest an analogy to the eerie electromagnetic sound and production of theremin music, or could be a reference to some other onomatopoeia, or indeed a literal reference to saying “woo-woo” to ward off waves!”

    I think it’s just slang. To be on the same wavelength as someone is to think like them, or agree with them. So the author was just saying that their woo is similar.

  3. #3 Anton Mates
    May 6, 2010

    Access World News takes me to a news article which says that musician George Winston was labeling New Agers as “woo-woos” in 1983. It appears to be the first instance of that term in that context that the reporter’s aware of, at least. Maybe someone should contact Winston and ask him if he picked it up from anyone else?

    THE NEW AGE SOUND: SOOTHING MUSIC BY SINCERE ARTISTS
    Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA) – Sunday, October 21, 1984

    So who is this New Age audience? Mostly upscale folks in their 30s and early 40s, the ones weaned on Baba Ram Dass and Woodstock and hallucinogenics, macrobiotic diets and transcendental meditation.
    …..
    George Winston, who practices yoga and who currently has three albums on the jazz charts (his five Windham Hill recordings have reportedly sold more than 800,000 copies; his LP December has just been certified gold), has jokingly called this crowd the “woo-woos.” In a 1983 interview in New Age Journal, Winston, asked if he knew who comprised his audience, answered that there were some classical fans, some jazz, some pop and “all the woo-woos.”
    “You know,” he added, “there’s real New Age stuff that has substance, and then there’s the woo-woo . A friend of mine once said, ‘George, you really love these woo-woos, don’t you?’ and I said ‘Yes, I do love them,’ and I do. I mean, I’m half woo-woo myself.”

  4. #4 Kermit
    May 7, 2010

    No Baby Boomers here yet? “Woo” is the cry ghosts make. Every kid in the 1950s knew *that. We grew up making a sarcastic “Woooo” sound whenever somebody made claim to spooky or supernatural stuff.
    Claimant: “Honest! I saw a ghost!”
    Response: “Wooooo…”

    Seems a very small step to a term for unbelievable claims of bad science or magic.

  5. #5 speedwell
    May 7, 2010

    I had always thought it was an alteration or borrowing of the syllable wu of the Taoist “wu wei” since a lot of these new age types are into Eastern mysticism. An online Buddhism dictionary says this about the syllable wu by itself: “1. A Chinese term corresponding to the Sanskrit bodhi, meaning ‘enlightenment’ or ‘awakening’.”

  6. #6 Rob Jase
    May 7, 2010

    May I point out that Wonder Woman’s sidekick, Etta Candy, used “woo, woo” as an expression as early as 1942 & she was likely inspired by Ed Wynn who had been using it since at least the early ’30′s.

  7. #7 Josh Rosenau
    May 7, 2010

    Jim: I found a use of “woo-woo” as a sort of general exclamation of amazement in a Haitian folk tale reported in a1947 edition of Phylon, an Africa-American studies journal founded by W. E. B. Dubois. Not a specifically supernatural context for the term’s use, though.

    Frankly, there are two issues here. First: when was the first use of “woo” as a way of denoting ghostly/supernatural sounds? Second, when did it take on the broader sense of describing all fringe beliefs? The “who-who” of an owl has always been regarded as eerie, so not surprising that a similar sound is attributed to ghosts. Most of the JSTOR references to “woo-woo” are monographs on birds, which tells you something.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to find variations on the theme (“woo-woo,” “who-who,” “hoo-hoo,” “whoa-whoa,” “wu-wu,” etc.) going back in scary stories for a long way. Indeed, the OED’s entry for “woo-woo” calls it the sound of the wind, citing: “1841 CARLYLE Misc. Ess., Baillie (1872) VI. 215 The ever~moaning..unsyllabled woo-woo of wind in empty churches!”

    But this does not tell us when “woo” or “woo-woo” came to the second meaning. Anton’s citation above seems to be the first in that sense, suggesting that somehow the New Age movement may have spawned the term. I can’t find anything in Lexis Nexis linking the terms before 1990, though.

  8. #8 eddie
    May 8, 2010

    Ironically, the hand-waving and spooky sound effects from a theramin (woooooo…) are based on sound physical principles.

  9. #10 MPW
    May 9, 2010

    Hang on here. I’m still stuck on that story about the Pope. Are you sure that’s not from The Onion?!

  10. #11 dexadog
    May 9, 2010

    Has anyone tried the dictionary??

    Woo; Origin: bef. 1050; ME wowe, OE wōgian

    —Related forms
    wooer, noun
    woo·ing·ly, adverb
    un·wooed, adjective

    —Synonyms
    4. petition, sue, address, entreat.

  11. #12 Ross Marsden
    July 28, 2011

    I always thought it came from the theme music of TV’s “The Twilight Zone”. Woo-woo woo-woo, Woo-woo woo-woo. Hence, woo, anything that was or might have been addressed by that program.