Say Wut

TF happened to the W?

Oh, sorry, I need one of those screen titles used for narrative effect in movies and TV shows to clarify where and when the action is occurring when it’s not presented in a straightforward linear path. You know the sort of thing, I’m sure.

A person clearly unused to holding a gun shakily points one at an understandably nervous doctor in an operating room and then the view pans out to an aerial shot of a big-city downtown and the screen says…

Eight hours earlier.

And then the story is told from the beginning, but with us knowing where everything is headed.

A spy/thriller narrative jumps from a gritty street scene to a harbour-level view and the screen says…

Sydney, ten years ago.

And then the backstory is told–previously confusing relationships are explained, previously obscure motivations are illuminated, previously simple character assessments are complicated–and then they jump back to the part of the space-time continuum where we began.

Glasgow, present day.

So. TF happened to the W? And the screen says…


Yes, apparently the earliest documented use of WTF was in computer culture in 1985. I didn’t know that in addition to the canonical what/wut, the W had several possible expansions, presumably to be clear from context: who, when, where, whatever.

Now if we jump again …

Present day
(Isn’t this helpful?)

… we find that large, menacing characters (Characters who might not be bad as such but merely misunderstood, I mean who can really say?) are no longer saying WTF (as, cough cough, expanded). Wait what/wut? Is it an outbreak of civility? The belated recognition that there are grandmothers watching them on those cinematic mean streets and in those dingy warehouses?

I wish. No, the word they’ve dropped isn’t the F: It’s the W. Well, and the “are.” OK, OK, and the “g.”

TF you doin’, man?

Yeah, that about captures it.

Now, this seems to me to be the wrong elision of this phrase, because these things tend to catch on. If TF starts substituting for what/wut in general and we lose the auxiliary verbs–are, were, would, among others–it could lead to many strange, even unwelcome, interactions.

Server: TF you like, ma’am?
Receptionist: TF’s your name, sir?
Police officer: TF speed you goin’, buddy?

No, I think we have to put our foot/feet down and rally in support of wut (what likely being a bridge too far) and the auxiliary verbs threatened as collateral damage.

Menacer: TF you sayin’, ma’am?
Grandmother: That’s wut TF are you sayin’,
and don’t you forget it. Um, man.

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10 Responses to Say Wut

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    OMG, ISTM initialisms like LOL and TIA have taken over language. Does anybody spell out NATO, UN, BRICS, G7, DNA, CBC, NORAD, CNBC, POTUS, SCOTUS, GOP, any more, let alone insert the relevant punctuation? I’m losing track of W’s a BFF and a FWB. Ah, F it.

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – 🙂 Yes, we’ve been taken over by acronyms, for sure, and I know you’ve written on the inevitable outcome: we forget what they actually stand for. I heard someone mis-expand an acronym the other day (of course I forget which). One of the hazards of this sort of shorthand.

  2. If it were only the acronyms! The Fs have taken over the language as an expression of existential despair. I recall a friend wanting to hear me me say, just once, the F-word. I could oblige her but the F-it expression is so far from my mental stance at all times that the phrase is meaningless and I am unable to invest it with meaning or energy. I remember the first time I every heard my father use the word “damn,” a truly shocking moment at the dinner table one evening. It may also have been the last time he used it. The meanings of words were considered extremely important in that world. Perhaps they still are and that mind set will become more prevalent.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I know. I hear language on the sidewalk that makes me want to say, “Hey! There’s a grandmother in earshot.” But I don’t. Probably wise.

  3. Barry says:

    The overuse of acronyms drives me nuts! it would not be so bad if an acronym only stood for a single expression instead of having a new definition each time – sometimes different meanings within a single paragraph.

    Previously it was the job of the transmitter of a communication to ensure comprehension of the receiver – to ensure that the message was received. I have the impression that the form of the transmission is solely for the ease of the transmitter – comprehension of the message is irrelevant!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barry – I guess the emphasis on comprehension varies with the application. I understand that air-traffic-control jargon is clear to the folks who use it, even though it’s obscure to the rest of us! For sure it takes time to craft a good message and, as you say, to confirm reception.

  4. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – yes, the spoken and written language we grew up with is losing its precision. But why take the time to be precise when you can just take a video on your phone and blast that out to the world?
    As an engineer, I was taught that language and precision were and are important, but engineers are in the minority these days.
    Bad habits are easy to come by and hard to get rid of – and today’s technology just makes it easier to take the shortcut. On the other hand, I’m glad we no longer converse in “olde” English.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – Yes, some of the angst of people our age is likely valid and some can be written off as an age reaction (as you say, the language changes, and that’s actually OK). Sorting that out isn’t easy!

  5. barbara carlson says:

    I am so old I remember that LOL was taken by some to mean Lots of Love.
    And my father’s only swear word was bloomin’ this or that. My mother used shoot!
    not knowing it stood for shit.
    If my sister or I had said Oh my God, we would have been spanked (remember that?) and our mouths washed out with soap. Neither ever happened.
    I don’t think I heard the F-word til I was 25 or 30. Now it’s constantly in every mouth “on the street”. Such impoverished vocabularies young people have now, which I believe reflects a stunted interior monologue, a loss of a richness, nuance of feeling. Perhaps the anger I see is from the inability to express what they feel — it’s like having a bad stutter.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Yes, I remember being spanked, but there was no soap-in-the-mouth in our home. As with yours, there was never a need. You raise an interesting point: Maybe anger is a result of lacking effective self-expression tools.

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