So I keep seeing young people spell the word “whoa” as “woah.” And I can’t figure out why this is. It’s not like “wh” is an unusual way for a word to begin. (What? Where? Who?) And it’s not like the word has two syllables when you pronounce it: woe-AHHH. So — why? Before you know it, “woah” will have become a word on its own and “whoa” will be forgotten, kicked to the roadside, left on the dust heap of obscurity along with the distinction between “rein” and “reign,” which is another error that’s a burr under my saddle. But that’s a horse of a different color. And anyway, going against the millennial tide is like beating a dead horse, right?
But — hold your horses! Long before “Woah!” was something young folk tweeted regarding a clothing mishap affecting Shakira, “Whoa!” was what you said to stop a horse in its tracks. The fact that it lives on in our language long after most of us have ever sat atop a gelding is proof of how entangled human lives once were with Equus caballus.
Think about it. What other animal inserts itself with such insistence into our daily conversations? You live in a one-horse town; you eat like a horse; you get off your high horse and hear things straight from the horse’s mouth. You can lead a horse to water; you shouldn’t look a gift one in the mouth. It’s no use shutting the barn door after the horse is gone. You might be put out to pasture, even if you’re as strong as a horse. Or hung like a stallion.
But I’m getting the cart before the horse, aren’t I? I was chomping at the bit; let me get back in the saddle. I’ll curb my enthusiasm, lest you bridle at me. I don’t want you circling the wagons, or thinking that I’m cavalier. I’m not trying to curry favor. This is no Trojan horse. Just stay in the buggy, dammit, and you’ll see.
Horsefeathers, you say? I’m riding roughshod over your sensibilities? You’ve been ridden hard and put away wet? Left at the gate? Nonsense! I’m just hitting my stride. I have matters in hand.
We’re getting into the home stretch now. I’m feeling my oats. I’m frisky as a colt! Put me through my paces! Spur me into action! I’m a shoo-in, even if I’m getting a bit long in the tooth.
Well, no wonder; my grandfather grew up on a Lithuanian horse farm, then rode in the U.S. Cavalry, fighting against Mexico’s Pancho Villa back before Twitter was anything but birdsong. I like the way words keep us tethered to our past, to life the way it used to be lived: in close proximity to huge beasts we gentled and bent to our will. Whose care and tending set the rhythms of our day, and our language. Listen: “Half a league, half a league/Half a league onward/All in the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred.” Can you hear the steady cadence of hooves on the ground? I think of Poppy when I get a charley horse. When I rely on my horse sense. Wild horses couldn’t drag me into spelling “whoa” “woah.” Have some respect for your elders. Don’t be a dark horse. I’m not asking you to change horses in mid-stream. But give it a try, eh? C’mon, pony up. Just throw your heart over. Lean into the collar. Don’t spit out the bit when the job isn’t done. I’m asking you and the horse you rode in on. Ce n’est pas la mort du petit cheval!
“H” is for “horse.” Put it in the right place.
Ah, who am I kidding? If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.
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