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Whoa, Nellie! Who Knows the Story Behind This?

Being of an inquisitive nature, I always like learning how words originated. It's even more fun when the lesson helps you spell the words correctly. I thought I'd share with you this lesson written by Arizona's local-gone-national Grammar Girl.

A reader asks her if she could help people learn how to not misspell "whoa" as "woah," to which Grammar Girl responds:'s a way to remember the proper spelling: "Who" and "ho" are two origins that are often cited for "whoa." For example, states that "ho" came first as a Middle English command to make a horse stop and then evolved sometime around 1620 into "whoa." To remember how to spell "whoa," just remember that the original word--"ho"-- stays intact in the middle.

Of course, associating "horse" with "whoa" naturally makes me think about "Whoa, Nellie!" I'm not quite sure of the etymology behind that. Here are some theories floating around. Maybe you all can help me track down the original source!

Background: Likely got changed to "Whoa, Nellie!" from "Whoa, mare!" which means "turn it up" or "desist." Dates to c. 1920-70, from an old-time song, according to A Dictionary of Catch Phrases. Well, that old-time song is actually "Whoa, Emma," which has an interesting story in itself. In 1887, Ben Bullock decided to pay a tribute to this popular song by writing "Whoa, Emma" on his new sweet creation: rock candy. Since the song pays tribute to the horse Emma, that's how the horse connection is made, and possibly why people in America later changed it to "Whoa, mare." (Of course, the songwriter is playing off the fact that "Whoa, Emma" stood for the urban lower-class, particularly a woman "of marked appearance or behavior in the streets," according to A Dictionary of Catch Phrases.) The song also appears in 1951's Texas Carnival. Herbert Daykin's song "Whoa, Emma" apparently dates to 1878. But how exactly does it become "Whoa, Nellie?" Is Nellie a popular name for a horse?

Theory 1: "Whoa, Nellie" was a cry given by Gene Autry's sidekick Frog Milhouse (Smiley Burnette) as he tried to stay aboard his white horse Ring-eyed Nellie.

Theory 2: "Whoa, Nelly" is also a cry given by Roy Roger's sidekick Pat Brady when driving the jeep, named the Nelly Belle for the 1950s TV program. (This theory dates later than Autry, so this would be an example of the phrase persisting in popular culture, but it did not originate here.)

Theory 3: Canadian Nelly Furtado's debut album Whoa, Nelly, released in 2000. (Ha! Just kidding!)

UPDATE: I found this Utica, NY, newspaper article, dated October 14, 1878, that references "Whoa, Emma." Thought you may be interested to read it: Newspaper Utica NY Morning Herald 1878 - 1079.PDF Here is the relevant portion, from the section on "New York State News:"

The leading clergyman of Albany is a devoted equestrian. A new horse had been sent him from the stable, and the gamin who brought it was shouting "Whoa, Emma!" The reverend gentleman, in all innocence, asked if that was the animal's name, and was told yes. Riding through the park, the bystanders were convulsed to hear the good dommie repeating in exciting tones: "Whoa, Emma! whoa, Emma!"

Could this be the first reference in print of "Whoa, Emma?" How neat if it is!

Meghan Saar
Managing Editor
True West magazine

Views: 1417

Comment by Christopher Zimmerman on August 11, 2009 at 5:44pm
Boy, this is just the kind of inane discussion I like to jump into. Thanks Meghan!

For some curious reason I always tell my horses, "Ho!" when I want them to stop moving. I didn't know I was being authentic to the 17th century. It just seems more efficient than saying "Whoa."

The question is how did the word "ho", meaning stop, wind up being used by John Wayne to get his cavalry column or wagon train moving forward? I'm pretty sure he would say something like, "Forwaaard....ho-o." What about that Ms. etymology person?
Comment by Danny Meadows on February 2, 2010 at 3:04pm
Whoa!.... Woah!.... Ho!......OH ! NO !


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