Word of the Year: W00t!

I'm pretty sure my high-school English teacher is letting out a blood-curdling scream right about now. My college roommates are like, "OMG WTF?" And my buddies in Second Life are shouting, "W00t! W00t!"

Don't worry. I'm as confused as you are. And that's because the word w00t—yes, it's a real word, a cooler way of saying "yay!"—was named Merriam-Webster's 2007 Word of the Year on Wednesday, complete with double zeros instead of o's. Out of 20 nominees, w00t was voted into the coveted spot by thousands of Internet-savvy language lovers, many of whom teamed up on blogs and message boards to bring recognition to their favorite new word. And in the end it won by a landslide, beating out facebook, conundrum and quixotic to take over for last year's winner, the Stephen Colbert-coined truthiness. "This is a word that was made up, has no classical roots, but has lasted," says Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's editor at large. "I can't say that w00t will stick, but it does show that sense of adventure in language that young people have."

Language purists need not worry; w00t hasn't made it into the traditional Merriam-Webster Dictionary yet. So far it appears only in the company's user-contributed open-source dictionary online and is unlikely to cross over into the print edition—unless it really stands the test of time, says Sokolowski. Merriam has chosen Words of the Year since 2003, and two since then (2003's democracy and 2005's integrity) were already dictionary entries. The third, 2004's blog, was added later. (The American version of the Oxford English Dictionary, meanwhile, chose locavore as its word of the year last month, for someone who only eats locally grown food.)

Still, w00t's recognition is a triumph for dorks around the world who have been using the term in online gaming forums and on Instant Messenger for years. Got a cool new laptop? W00t! Excited about a party? W00t! W00t! It works for "yay!," "woo-hoo!," "cool," "awesome," and just about any other upbeat emotion you want to convey. "It's an easy, fun, playful and thoughtful way to express excitement," says Julia Roy, a 24-year-old Boston blogger who says she uses the term at the office to IM colleagues, when she blogs on Twitter, and in conversations on social networking sites like MySpace. "W00t is finally getting the recognition it deserves."

W00t's origins are a little murky. Some say it began as a gaming acronym for "We 0wned the 0ther Team," while others speculate that it arose as a combination of wow and loot—or another version of hoot. Wikipedia credits the Dungeons and Dragons card game that was popular in the 1990s, claiming it emerged as an abbreviation for "Wow, loot!" Still others say it might be for "want one of those," a term for tech-gadget lust. "It's sort of an onomatopoeia," says Bob Ostertag, a San Francisco writer and musician whose latest album—a collection of computer game music—is presciently titled "W00t." "It sounds like what you'd say when you feel like how you feel when you say 'W00t!'"

Amid the debate, there is one point of consensus: w00t's categorization as l33t-speak (that's "leet," short for "elite"), the Internet-born language that substitutes numbers for vowels. (L33t—omg that's hard to type—began as a way for hackers to thwart text searches for their conversations on online message boards. Here at NEWSWEEK, l33t's legacy is evident in the hoards of obscene junk mail we get each day that aren't filtered out by our corporate firewall. W00t!)

For language buffs, what's surprising about w00t is that it hasn't followed a word's traditional path—being spoken first and written later. Take the word hello, for example. It began as an oral greeting over the telephone—a salutation for a person you couldn't see. Only after it was spoken orally did it get written down and added to the dictionary (in 1877, to be exact, says Sokolowski).

But w00t has done just the opposite: it started on the keyboard, made its way into SMS texting, then into writing, until it was finally spoken out loud. And perhaps that reflects a new direction in language, one being molded by a generation raised on the Internet, videogames and cell phone text messaging. "To google," after all, became a widely accepted verb virtually overnight. And even my fortysomething editors write e-mails with LOL. "This momentous selection is just another sign that the American lexicon is increasingly defined not by scholars but by raving lunatic bloggers like us," writes Jared, a blogger on Owenbloggers.com.

Of course, like all things to hit the mainstream, w00t's widespread recognition might just be the beginning of the end. True pioneers of its use say its popularity is, like, so 1995. "It's so old-school I don't even use it anymore," writes a blogger from Alaska. ThinkGeek, an online tech-gadget retailer, meanwhile, has been selling w00t! T-shirts since 2001; the fact that the phrase is only now making headlines, says Ty Liotta, one of its brains, is, well, a little less than cool. "Part of being geeky is that you want to be up on the latest technologies, and you want credit for using the latest terms. And then suddenly it hits mainstream and then the geeks and hackers are like, 'Oh, we hate it now'," he says. "So I'm not sure turning mainstream necessarily bodes well for w00t." Well, we can't all be chic geeks.