W is called “double-U” because it was once precisely that. Originally, the ancient Germanic languages of Europe didn’t have a letter to adequately represent their “w” sound (the labio-velar approximant, if you want to get technical), so instead it was represented by two consecutive letter Us or Vs. Eventually, these two ran together into one single character, W, which has remained in use to this day. It's this history that gives W the longest name of any letter of the English language—and also means that the acronym www uniquely contains three times more syllables than it does letters.
Today, the letter W accounts for just under 2 percent of all English language writing, but thanks to the high frequency of words like was, will, with, were, which, would, who, what, where, when, and why, you can expect W to be the first letter of roughly one in every 20 of the words you use every day. And that’s without adding any of these to your vocabulary …
An old slang name for a foolish, swaggering, braggish person.
Wag-pasty is an old Tudor word for a “mischievous rogue,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
The youngest or last-hatched bird in a brood is the wallydrag or wally-draigle. Figuratively, you can also use this one to mean a thin or meager-looking person, or as a nickname for someone who always appears shabbily or untidily dressed.
An old 16th-century dialect word that spread to the U.S. in the 19th century, wamble-cropped means sick to your stomach. As a verb, wamble means “to feel nauseated,” or, figuratively, “to turn over and over.”
A warday (pronounced so that “war” rhymes with “bar,” not “core”) is simply a weekday. The war– part is probably a contraction of “work.”
The unassuming word warp might just be one of the most bizarrely useful words in the English language. In addition to meaning “to bend or distort out of shape,” the verb warp has a number of other definitions, including “to put on or take off a garment hastily,” “to sprinkle or scatter something across a surface,” both “to fling open a gate” and “to open a door wide,” “to float through the air,” “to deflect or divert something from its usual route or course,” “to move or work slowly on your hands and knees,” and “to suddenly place someone in great distress.”
An old dialect word for sycophantic flattery or wheedling, persuading language.
An old dialect word used both for someone who habitually speaks before thinking, or who frequently uses bad language.
A 16th-century word for a spendthrift.
An old 18th-century nickname for a midwife. Bonus fact: Midwives were also once nicknamed “rabbit-catchers.”
Coined by Shakespeare in Henry VI: Part 3, the adjective water-standing means “flooded with tears.”
A cloudless sky might sound like perfect weather, but old folklore claims that a sky without a cloud in sight is actually an omen of heavy rain to come. As a result, a perfectly clear blue sky was once known as a weather-breeder, in the sense that it probably means that there’s a storm brewing.
Well-a-day is an old expression of woe or sorrow, but well-a-fine was essentially an 18th-century equivalent of “what do you know!” or “that’s all well and good!”
An old northern English nickname for a drunkard.
Whang is an old English dialect word meaning “to beat” or “thrash,” and derived from that, a whangsby is anything that is particularly tough or hard-wearing.
Back at a time when horses were widely used for transport and to power machinery, a leader was a horse positioned in front of whatever contraption it was pulling or powering, while a wheel-horse was positioned among the machinery itself, typically between the shafts of two rotating wheels. As it was understandably believed that the leader had the better deal of the two, the 18th-century word wheel-horse eventually came to be used figuratively to refer to anyone who works the hardest or bears the greatest burden in any particular enterprise or activity.
An old Scots dialect word used to mean “to whistle feebly or tunelessly.”
Another Scots word, this time for any bizarre or fanciful contraption or device. Brilliantly, you can also use it as a verb, meaning “to work in an insignificant manner.” A wheeriorum, incidentally, is any strange-looking object the function of which isn’t immediately clear.
It’s worth remembering the next time you go camping that a stick used to lift a pot of boiling water from a fire is a wheezle-rung.
An old English dialect word for a noise made by a dog that’s part way between a bark and a snarl. However that might sound.
As well as being the name of a type of marine snail, whelk is an old English word for a pimple or pustule. So if you’re whelky, then you have a spotty complexion.
To whemmle something is to turn it upside down, in particular while you’re looking for something, or to use as a cover or lid. So placing an upturned plate over a bowl of food is properly called whemmling.
To whiffle is to flicker or flutter through the air. Derived from that, a whiffler (as well as being another word for a tobacco-smoker) is someone who “whiffles” a sword or similar implement so as to clear a path through a crowd for a procession following behind them.
An 18th-century slang nickname for weak or spoiled beer or liquor. A whip-belly rot was a bad stomach following a night of heavy drinking.
An old nickname once used in Scotland for an incessant chatterer, or for someone who habitually tells exaggerated or unlikely stories.
To walk a staggering, zigzagging route. Possibly after too much whip-belly.
Knots in hair are supposedly tied there by witches, according to old English folklore, in which case they’re known as witchknots. Knots in a horse's mane or tail hair, incidentally, are witches’ stirrups.
An 18th-century word meaning “counter-clockwise,” or “in the opposite direction to normal.”
A tree used as a geographical marker, such as on a route or to mark a boundary, is a witness-tree.
A poor-quality comedian or joke-teller.
A 17th-century word for someone who works or deals in wonders.
An old Yorkshire word meaning “to take refreshment at an inn.” Sometimes followed by the whip-belly rot.
The loose elasticated loop that helps keep a glove on a hand? That’s the wristlet.
If you’re writative, then you love or are inclined to write. Just so long as you don’t write a writation—which is an 18th-century word for a poorly written text.
Something that’s wrizzled is creased or corrugated, or shriveled up. It’s probably derived from an even earlier word, writhled, which meant much the same thing.
Someone who always seems to come up with bizarre ideas or irrational, ill-informed judgments is a wronghead.
Wrongo is 1930s slang for a counterfeit coin, or a disreputable or dishonest person.
Literally a “wonder-chamber” in German, wunderkammer is another name for a “cabinet of curiosities”—a miscellaneous collection of bizarre objects or novelties. Wunderkammers were extremely popular in Europe after the end of the Renaissance and became a handy way for the enlightened and educated to display their varied interests and breadth of knowledge. After his death in 1753, one noted English naturalist and collector of curios, Sir Hans Sloane, bequeathed his wunderkammer to the British nation; it eventually became The British Museum.
As Emily Brontë herself explained in her 1847 novel, “Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff's dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather.” Also spelled whither or whudder, wuther first appeared in the language in the mid-1400s, when it originally meant “to move with great force.” It’s likely descended from an even earlier Scandinavian word, meaning “to move or knock back and forth.”
An old Tudor period word for a waistcoat, or any similar garment worn underneath other clothes.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.