Thursday, May 06, 2010

Origin of the term "woo"

Earlier today on Twitter, Adam Bourque (@A_Damn_Bourque) asked if anyone knew the origin of the term "woo" as applied to the paranormal.  I know I've heard the term used for at least a decade (or two or three?), but after seeing that neither the Skeptics Dictionary entry on "woo woo" nor threads at the JREF Forums had an etymology, I decided to take a look at Google Books.

"Woo" wasn't a good search due to the homonym, and "woo woo" led to lots of matches in stories of children imitating fire engine sirens, but adding "astrology" and "occult" as additional terms led to some useful matches.

On my first pass, the oldest reference I found was in Nicholas Evans' novel The Loop (1999), p. 244:
And anyway, being a woman in the macho world of wolf research was hard enough without everyone thinking you'd gone woo-woo, the term her mother used to scorn everything from astrology to vitamin pills.  And in truth, although Helen didn't doubt there were more things in heaven and earth than could be seen with the aid of a microscope, on the woo-woo scale she was definitely at the skeptical end.
 Hey, it's even a book with a skeptical character!

Next, by adding "astrology," I found a slightly earlier nonfiction reference, Kate Bornstein's My Gender Workbook (1998), p. 121:
Don't get me wrong, I believe in a lot of woo-woo stuff.  I'm a double Pisces with a Taurus Moon.  I was born in 1948, the Year of the Rat.  I use several I-Ching software programs on my computer, and I've been reading tarot cards for nearly thirty years.
Not a skeptic, in that case.

Then, by adding "occult," another earlier nonfiction reference by sociologists of religion, James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton, in Perspectives on the New Age (1992), p. 3:
I also found that the characterization of New Age psychism as being "woo-woo" and "airy-fairy" was true of only some of the more public New Age channels.
But then, pay dirt--a source going back to May 1844 that looks like a likely candidate for the origin of the term, in The North British Review, vol. 1, no. 11, p. 340, in a review of (or excerpt from?) Report by the Commissioners for the British Fisheries of their Proceedings of 1842, "Our Scottish fishermen" (pp. 326-365):
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.
Though this isn't enough to be certain, this looks like a very likely origin of the term.

Thanks to Adam for prompting this search.

UPDATE: Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas points out a 1986 St. Petersburg Times story:
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.
In the comments below, I point out two older cases of "woo woo" I've found in ghost stories as a sound:

Groff Conklin's 1962 The Supernatural Reader, p. 101 has these two sentences, but the page context isn't available from Google Books: "Someone else giggled, and from the darkness beside the building came a high-pitched, 'Woo-woo!' I walked up to Sam and grinned at him."

Cecil John Richards, Wind Over Fowlmere and Other Stories, 1953, p. 116: "...going 'woo-woo woo-woo-woo' in its deep gruff voice just over my head. ... And then Hargreaves led us once again into the realm of the supernatural."

UPDATE (May 7, 2010): Anton Mates found and posted this news item from 1984 at Josh Rosenau's blog and in the comments below:

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."

15 comments:

MKR said...

A useful analysis, but I have two reservations. (1) From the fact that one text is much older than any of the others, one cannot infer that it is the source, or even a source, of the term. You would need to show at least that there has been some continuity in the use of the term since then. (2) I think that you lose sight of the point that the question is the origin of the use of the syllables "woo" or "woo woo" as words, more specifically as nouns or adjectives (rather than interjections), with a particular meaning, rather than the origin of those syllables themselves. I would expect that English-speaking people have have occasionally used the vocable "woo" as an imitation of various natural (or supernatural?) sounds for a long time, without it having any genuine verbal meaning -- much as "Pow!" or "Blam!" is used today.

Brian Gregory said...

I always thought the term "woo woo" came from Marvin Gaye.

Bartimaeus said...

It would be interesting if it had a nautical origin. There are a lot of terms that trace back to nautical origins (nipper, son of a gun, taken aback, back and fill, and many more). these tended to be widespread and take on different meanings in different parts of the world and in non-nautical contexts. It would be interesting to find more examples.

Jim Lippard said...

MKR: I agree with your first point--this doesn't connect the dots. Regarding your second point--this clearly isn't the origin of the syllables (the English word "woo" goes back centuries, to before the 12th century), but this is clearly a case of the word being used in a supernatural context. It's not clear to me that it's intended to be imitative or onomatopoetic.

I welcome further examples between 1844 and 1992, as well as alternative etymologies that have supporting documentation.

Brian Gregory: I was thinking Kool and the Gang.

Bartimaeus: More examples would be great--I'd like to trace back more examples of the modern usage.

Jim Lippard said...

MKR: Groff Conklin's 1962 _The Supernatural Reader_, p. 101 has these two sentences, but the page context isn't available from Google Books: "Someone else giggled, and from the darkness beside the building came a high-pitched, 'Woo-woo!' I walked up to Sam and grinned at him."

Jim Lippard said...

Cecil John Richards, _Wind Over Fowlmere and Other Stories_, 1953, p. 116: "...going 'woo-woo woo-woo-woo' in its deep gruff voice just over my head. ... And then Hargreaves led us once again into the realm of the supernatural."

Jim Lippard said...

There does seem to be a fair amount of "woo woo" as a noise of a supernatural creature in fiction, in decades prior to the earliest found usage of the words as a descriptive term, and continuing to the present. That's probably the simplest explanation.

Bartimaeus said...

Ok, this may be a stretch, but there are some old scottish uses of "hoo" that may relate.
http://www.dsl.ac.uk/
In scots hoo meant a hood or hat and sailors and others used the term for the membranes covering a newborn's head. These membranes were thought to protect from drowning, and sailors would spend quite a bit to get one. There was also a legend that the possession of a wren feather would protect sailors from storms. (The Oxford Companion to Ships and The Sea, superstitions of sailors entry pg. 847) Sailors were notoriously superstitious, and it is possible that they chanted hoo, or woo, when frightened to ward of danger. It may have referenced the hoo or caul from a newborn, or imitated the call of a wren. Sophisticated Londoners might have imitated the sound to mock the superstition-which is basically the modern use. I'll keep my eyes open for any other examples.

MKR said...

Lippard, on re-reading the passage I see the force of your reply to my point no. 2. Even if the term is being used in the passage merely as an exclamation and not a noun or adjective, it is still associated with spooky or supernatural phenomena, which may be attributed to it as a meaning. So even if the sound is not being used as a term in the passage, this could be considered an early source of its use as a term.

xamm said...

Cross-posting from TFK:

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."

joel hanes said...

I believe I first saw "woo" used in its current Intarwebs connotation in a disparaging Usenet discussion of Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters

Jim, you might profitably search Google Groups.

Chris said...

Nah, the first use of "woo" in a skeptical sense was from Shakespeare. "We cannot fight for love as men may do; We should be woo'd, and were not made to woo." The idea of only men wooing women is crap. :P

aimee said...

Could it not simply be due to the 'wooooo' ghost sound that so many of us attribute to the manifestation of said beasties?

Jim Lippard said...

Aimee: Yes, it could--see the 1962 and 1953 references in the first update to the original post.

jimspeiser said...

Bob Mohan often used "woo-woo" on his radio show to describe New Agers and other paranormalists. He said that the term comes from the sound made by the Mother Ship when it lands in the Sedona Vortex. He would approximate the sound with a low, sort of vibrating "woo.....woo....wooo." I've always taken this as the definitive origin.