2

Uh oh is defined as something you say when you made a mistake, or when something is going wrong or a bad thing is about to happen.

  • An example of a time when you would say "uh oh" is when you dropped and spilled your juice.
  • An example of a time when you would say "uh oh" is when you know you are about to get caught doing something wrong because you hear foot steps coming down the hall

. - YourDictionary.com


Why do we say 'Uh Oh' to mean 'Here's trouble? Even babies learn to say it and in the right context as well.

It's commonly known and said by all but where did it start? Is it just a natural sound that an English speaker subconsciously makes in a certain situation or did someone say it first and it caught on?

I've Googled the fun out of it now and I still can't find any information on the origin of the phrase;

'Uh Oh'

  • 2
    I think it may be related to the falling pitch "Sad Trombone" sound effect trope as used in cartoons, comedy shows, etc. Specifically, Uh-Oh is pretty much the last two notes of this "stock sound", which I'm sure predates WW2. – FumbleFingers Oct 22 '15 at 12:00
  • "Uh-oh" is like the third thing kids learn to say, after "mama" and "dada". – Hot Licks Oct 22 '15 at 13:13
  • Is Uh Oh, technically, a phrase? Isn't it an utterance, similar to eew or mmm...? What's that sound we make when we agree with something we are hearing? A sort of "I'm listening to you but I don't want to interrupt your flow of speech" Or when we finally understand a problem, don't we also "say": Ahhh! – Mari-Lou A Dec 3 '15 at 8:40
3

The intonation sequence High-Low is what carries the meaning.
With some glottal stoppage to punctuate the two syllables.
The actual syllables used are irrelevant.
One can do the job just by humming High-Low.

As for where it came from, nobody will ever know, because nobody was recording speech
that far back, and this came from speech. Not from writing. Nobody would write it down
until a long time after it became current, because one didn't write down such scurrilous
informal talk. Until recently, that is.

  • What do other languages do? – Mitch Oct 22 '15 at 22:11
  • They have different signals, just like they have different words. – John Lawler Oct 22 '15 at 23:55
  • What I mean is, do you know of a corresponding sound sequence in another language? – Mitch Oct 23 '15 at 0:55
  • 1
    @Mitch: Both Russian and Armenian use the same High-Low sequence, albeit with different sounds (the Armenian, for example, is պահո /pa-ho/) – Armen Ծիրունյան Nov 29 '15 at 12:11
1

I think it is just the phonetic transcription of a natural exclamation, a recent one on printed paper, according to M-W: ( probably from the union of Uh and Oh, two older expression as shown below):

Uh-oh:

  (interjection \ˈə-ˌō, usually with strong glottal stops before the vowels) 
  • used when you realize that you are in a bad situation, that you have made a mistake, etc.

  • first Known use is from 1971

(M-W)

Ngram shows some instances of earlier usages, but the expression appears to have become popular in writing from the early 70's.

Note that the two separate expressions existed well before uh-oh documented usage:

Etymonline has Oh as an older expression from which probably uh-oh derives:

  • 1530s, interjection expressing various emotions, a common Indo-European word (Old French ô;, oh; Latin o, oh; Greek o; Old Church Slavonic and Lithuanian o; Gothic, Dutch, German o; Old Irish a; Sanskrit a), but not found in Old English, which translated Latin oh with la or eala.
    • The present tendency is to restrict oh to places where it has a certain independence, & prefer o where it is proclitic or leans forward upon what follows .... [Fowler]
    • Often extended for emphasis, as in Oh, baby, stock saying from c. 1918; oh, boy (1910); oh, yeah (1924). Reduplicated form oh-oh as an expression of alarm or dismay is attested from 1944. Oh-so "so very" (often sarcastic or ironic) is from 1922. Oh yeah? "really? Is that so?" attested from 1930.

Also Uh has an an older origin but a different meaning,

  • inarticulate sound, attested from c. 1600; uh-huh, spoken affirmative (often ironic or non-committal) is recorded from 1904; negative uh-uh is attested from 1924.
  • It is ludicrous to argue that "uh-oh" only goes back to 1971. It has existed since I was a child (and that's a lot earlier than 1971). – Hot Licks Oct 22 '15 at 13:16
  • I'm referring to its usage on printed paper, as M-W does. It's spoken usage is obviously earlier . – user66974 Oct 22 '15 at 13:20
1

Comic books maybe.

I think this is a case of reality imitating art.

Many noises that we make are represented in text by an onomatopoeic phrase. In novels, we see 'pah! and 'psst!' for example. A wordless grunt made by a caveman might be indicated by "Ugh". However people reading this sound out-loud would pronounce it as though it was a word, for example by saying 'ug' Then by imitation, the word 'ugh' came into being.

Similarly with "uh-oh".

There was an explosion of such phrases in line with the development of comic-books from the 1930s onwards. Some have survived and some haven't.

Answer

Probably the 'uh-oh' sound was there long before anyone thought to write it down. This means that you are doomed never to have a definitive answer about its true origin because until a time-machine is invented we cannot know what sounds people made but didn't record!

My hypothesis is that this particular expression, along with countless others, originated in a comic book.

I believe that, somehow, you will have to find a way of examining and analysing the textual content of comic-books.

Unfortunately I am not aware of an online source for this.

1

I suspect that uh-oh was used in speech long before it was spelled in that form. The problem is that its probable written antecedent, "oh-oh" or "oh, oh" only sometimes represents the speech pattern "uh-oh"; at other times it signifies a repetition of the one-syllable word (or exclamation) "oh." In any case, if "oh oh" was the predecessor of "uh-oh," it would be difficult to isolate the instances where the intended pronunciation and intonation matched those of the later spelling.

Antecedents aside, a Google Books search does find instances of uh-oh (with or without the hyphen) in the relevant sense from considerably earlier than 1971. In this answer I focus on instances prior to 1965.

From Langston Hughes, Little Ham (1935), reprinted in Five Plays by Langston Hughes (1963):

MADAM [BELL] Yes, darling, let's go. (They start toward the door, but MADAM BELL suddenly pauses as MATTIE BEA enters. Excitedly) Look, LeRoy, there's Ham's other woman! Uh-oh!

LEROY Who? Where? Which one?

MADAM (Pointing) Mattie Bea!

LEROY Uh-oh! Watch out!

From a series of copyright entries for commercial prints submitted by Freithofer Baking Co. of Philadelphia, in Catalog of Copyright Entries. Part 4. Works of Art, Etc. New Series (1943):

Uh-oh! Newlywed in distress! © Nov. 30, 1943; KK 17998.

Uh-oh! The fateful dawn. © Nov. 25, 1943; KK 18000.

An index entry in Catalog of Copyright Entries: Musical Compositions (1945) includes this bare-bones data on a song title and citation number: "Uh-oh. 62772."

From an advertisement for Arrow Shirts in Life magazine (December 9, 1946):

JEAN: He's in a new show—opens tomorrow night. And he said he'd get us two tickets, first row center, if—

BILL: Uh-oh. Now I catch on—

JEAN:—if I could possibly persuade you to let him have one of your new Arrow white shirts. Will do?

BILL: O. K., honey, I guess Pretty Boy can have it. But opening night only. Then I want my Arrow back!

From Joseph Mitchell, Old Mr. Flood, (1948):

He [a deckhand] marched up the dock, drumming on the bucket and yodeling, stepping high, a regular one-man band. Another one turned a double somerset and stood on his head right on the edge of the dock. He got up, shook himself and began to sing song called 'Tiptoe Through the Tulips with Me.' 'Uh-oh!' I said to Drew. 'The oysters have caught up with them.'

From Saul Gottlieb, "A Mythical Merry-Go-Round: A Fantasy for Radio," in Generation (Summer 1950):

ALLEN: They're putting out the brass rings, Lucy—make a grab for it!

LUCY: Uh-oh, I missed it!

ALLEN: You couldn't catch a cold. Watch me.

LUCY: There—you missed too.

From David Dunbar, "Family First Aid," in Boys' Life (June 1951):

Wait a minute, Sis! That water is hot stuff, an the pan is too heavy for you. Uh-oh, we're too late. Sis thought she'd help Mom with lunch, but she wasn't careful enough, her arm was burned by the hot water.

From "The Play Goes On and On," in Boys' Life (March 1952):

"You know, Spiffy is really a swell person," she said enthusiastically. "And he's nobody's dumbbell either. It didn't take him long to figure out how well he fitted that part. And it worked out just like in the play. He's got a lot to learn but he's getting there. Poor guy. He's never had any friends and he was really lonely. Guess what? He was actually scared stiff I wouldn't come to the party with him tonight!"

"Uh-oh," chortled Peeps, "so the play must go on and on and on."

From Ted Friedman, "Genie in the Bottle," in The Michigan Technic (April 1956):

Before he could finish, the electric typewriter began clattering.

"Uh-oh, something's up."

Joe ran over to the typewriter and read the message.

Chart Book, volume 63, issue 11 (1958), reports three races run by a horse named "Jeff's Uh Oh."

From an advertisement for ChapStick in Life magazine (February 2, 1959):

UH-OH! watch those lips! What's in the wind?—trouble, plenty of trouble for lips exposed to wind and cold and sleet.

Billboard magazine (January 11, 1960) reports that on that date the Nutty Squirrels had two hit singles in the Billboard Hot 100 pop records chart: "Uh! Oh! (Part II)" at number 24, and "Uh! Oh! (Part I)" at number 84. Billboard further reported that "Uh! Oh! (Part II)" had been on the chart for ten weeks and "Uh! Oh! (Part I)" for six weeks. Aside from a few stray English phrases such as "Groovy man," "Far out," and "One more time," both parts of "Uh! Oh!" consist of meaningless scat-singing syllables, as you can hear on this YouTube recording of the songs. Nevertheless, the intonation of "uh! oh!" that the squirrels use is exactly like the "uh-oh" that a parent uses when speaking to a toddler (or vice versa) after a mishap. The Wikipedia article on the Nutty Squirrels states that the band released "Uh Oh" in 1959, which is consistent with the Billboard data.

From Joan Williams, The Morning and the Evening (1961):

There was a fried chicken leg, a stuffed egg, and a piece of marble cake. He ate them all. He was licking his fingers when Sam came back. "Uh-oh," Sam said. "You can't have that." He took the razor.

From "Try These 4-H Song Parodies at Your Next Club Meeting," in National 4-H Club News, volumes 39–40 (1961[?]) [combined snippets]:

(NORTH CAROLINA) Arlita Lowry, Pembroke (Tune: Old McDonald) Mary had an unsafe home,/Me, oh my, oh oh!/And in this home she had frayed wires,/Me, oh my, oh, no!/With a little shock here,/A little shock there,/Here a shock, there a shock,/Everywhere a shock, shock/Mary had an unsafe home,/Me, oh my, oh oh!/(Other verses using "poison drugs—little dose here; throw rugs—little fall here; piled up junk—little fire here; loaded guns—bang, bang here.)/Mary had an unsafe home,/Me, oh my, uh oh!/And in this home they found poor Mary,/Me, oh my, uh oh!/And now poor Mary is no more,/Me, oh my, uh oh!/They found her dead upon the floor,/Me, oh my, uh oh!

From Herbert Simmons, Man Walking on Eggshells (1962):

Class got real quiet. Then the door flew open and Mr. Purcell walked in.

Uh-oh!

He waved his finger at Carl.

Jerome went Woody Woodpecker and started flapping his arms around when Carl and Mr. Purcell went out the door but class was quiet. Caught at Teacher's desk by the principal, oo-oo-wee!

From Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion (Viking Press, 1964, but copyrighted by Kesey in 1963):

"Damned if I know. I figured they'd be here waiting. But, now ... what I reckon is, the pack there sounds like it tried once, then headed off again." He frowned, scratching the tip of his nose. "Yeah, ,,, I reckon Molly took the pack off to that bear—uh-oh, hear that? fox is turnin'—and soon as Uncle saw what he'd got into he says, 'Let's go, boys. Leave that fool Molly to get et by a bear if she so wants. Let's go hunt some fox.' ..."

...

"Hell, boy I don't know why." He tossed a stick into the flames. "You got the education, I'm nothin' but a dumbass logger. I just know that I decided it didn't stand to reason a deer or beer—or say a fox, who's supposed to be a pretty smart customer—would drown hisself just to get shut of a few fleas. That's a purty stiff cure." He stood up and walked a few paces from the fire, brushing the front of his pants. "Uh-oh, listen there ... they cut him off. They got the sucker now if he don't swim."


Conclusion

The word uh-oh has been showing up in print since at least 1935 (when it appeared in a play by Langston Hughes), although it didn't become common in print until the 1960s. The fact that most of the early Google Books matches for the term occur in dialogues or advertising (or both) suggests that "uh-oh" was already well established in speech as an exclamation before it began to make its way into print. That, in turn, raises the possibility that earlier attempts to replicate the expression may have use a different spelling (such as oh, oh) that would be difficult to distinguish from other vocalizations that shared the same spelling.

0

The origin of uh-oh can be deduced/ understood if one reads the entry "oh, oh" in the revised and updated version of OED (2004), where that particular written form is not recorded even as a variant.

  • The interjection is first recorded in the XVI century (1569) expressing surprise with negative (pain, distress, regret, surprise, disapproval) or positive (delight) connotation and the pronunciation was: Brit. /ˈəʊˈˌəʊ/ , U.S. /ˈoʊˈˌoʊ/ .

  • A second sense of the interjection is recorded from 1944, in an American thriller, "expressing (*often to oneself *or confidentially) alarm, apprehension, dismay, realization of a difficulty, etc." and its pronunciation is slightly different and in BE the first vowel changes to : Brit. /ˈʌˌəʊ/, U.S. /ˈəˌoʊ/

    (E. S. Gardner Case of Black-eyed Blonde xvi. 156 ) "Two police cars were closing in on them..‘Oh, oh!’ Della said under her breath".

OED does not record any variant uh oh but only oh,oh, oh-oh, nor the presence of a glottal stop even in the BE pronunciation

One is warranted to deduce that the new form of the interjection was later introduced to represent the change in the first vowel from oh /ˈəʊ/ to uh /ˈʌ/.

There is almost no difference with other interjections (ha ) expressing surprise or other emotions:

A natural exclamation found in Greek, Latin, most of the modern Romanic, and all the modern Germanic languages. The simple ha! is not recorded in Old English (which had however the ha ha! of laughter), but was used in Old French, and is frequently in English from c1300

Sometimes doubled, or preceded or followed by other interjections; as: (ha ha!, a ha!, ah ha!, †ha a!).

The higher pitch of the first vowel is due to the burst of emotion, then the muscles of the larynx relax and produce a falling intonation, it is a physiological mechanism and has little to do with meaning as supposed by John Lawler or Fumble-Fingers.

'oh', 'oh oh', 'ha', 'ha ha' have always existed (in all languages) and were very popular since XVI century and in the XX century the variants uh uh, uh oh are recorded. Here is an expression of disapproval (uh-uh, ha-ha) that sounds /ˈʌ ˌ?ʌ / , 'uh-oh' shows the different pronunciation and the slightly different meaning of 'alarm, that spells trouble'.

As to why and how this new usage emerged it is possible that it was made popular in the '40s by Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series of animated cartoons. "Tweety Bird", where the canary utters it when threatened by the 'puddytat'

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.