I'm trying to learn English and I would like to know what are the expressions of surprise with positive meaning (slang or not, but not vulgar) currently used in spoken English for USA and Britain.

Is "whoa" correct? Or is "wow"?


1 Answer 1


Both wow and whoa are used in American and British English as expressions of surprise.

If you look at the context in which the words appear, for example, in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, one distinction between the words is that whoa is also used with the meaning "slow down, wait" (from its meaning as a command to a horse), whereas wow seems to be generally only used for surprise. This is even more apparent in the results in the British National Corpus. There, also, some of the results for wow are actually for wowee, a version I would have considered colloquial or outdated-sounding if hearing in AmE (but note that the BNC data also stops at the 1990s).

One discussion of wow and whoa mentions:

The OED gives spellings and definitions that seem exactly right.

whoa wəʊ ‘a word of command to a horse or other draught-animal to stop or stand still’ (from 1843)
wow waʊ ‘now chiefly expressing astonishment or admiration’ (from 1892)

On the other hand the on-line Urban Dictionary offers further, alternative, definitions of whoa that make it a partial synonym of wow:

  1. To express surprise (interj)
  2. To express astonishment (interj)

In the comments on that discussion, a number of speakers of different dialects offer insights. One BrE speaker mentions about spelling:

I think there's a third interjection, pronounced the same as whoa, but maybe spelled woah or woh. That's what's being said in the cartoon, and it combines the two meanings - an expression of surprise and a request to stop.

A blog about AmE and BrE further discusses the woah spelling:

The OED lists woah as a variant of woa which is a variant of whoa... I don't remember ever seeing the woah spelling (I'd want to pronounce it as two syllables: wo-ah, like Noah) before moving to England [as an American], but it's a very popular spelling here. Searching just UK sites, one gets ~170,000 hits for woah and ~255,000 for whoa.

  • 2
    As you say, Whoa! is primarily used to mean Hold on, there!, or Slow down!. In the UK, the 'surprise' version is usually transcribed as Phwoar! (often with sexual/titillating overtones), or Phew! (often with overtones of relief that the surprise didn't end in disaster). Sep 23, 2011 at 22:29
  • Phwoar! That's a new one for me.
    – user13141
    Sep 23, 2011 at 22:36
  • I did actually find phwoah in OALD but I didn't include it as I didn't want to give the mistaken impression that this exists in AmE. Its existence was a surprise to me ;) We have phew! but I suppose I'd say something entirely different for phwoar!, perhaps rawr! or ooh!, if it was ever written.
    – aedia λ
    Sep 23, 2011 at 22:41

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