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.