Q&A: “Go to whoa” or “go to woe”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, do not pass go…

Q: Hi AWC, I’d like to know about the saying “from go to woe” – I know that it means from start to finish, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

A: Well, when you say “go to woe” then nope, it WON’T make any sense. Because the phrase you want is actually “from go to whoa”.

Q: Whoa.

A: Indeed.

Q: That makes a lot more sense.

A: The word “whoa” is typically defined as an interjection to make an animal (usually a horse) stop. The word had actually been kicking around English since the 1600s, initially as variant of “who” but by the 1800s similar to another stopping synonym, “ho”.

Q: So was Santa just trying to get the reindeer to stop when he said “ho ho ho”?

A: No, he was probably laughing. Anyway, by the 20th century “ho” had died out while “whoa” stuck around.

Q: You know what they say, “whoas before hos”…

A: Very good.

Q: Alright, so “whoa” means to stop. But what about surfers, or Bill and Ted – they use “whoa” in a different way.

A: They do, and since the 1980s it has provided the other meaning of “whoa” – as an expression of astonishment, surprise or delight. It has, in part, replaced “wow” in this role.

Q: Wait, can’t it also be spelt “woah”?

A: The jury is still out on that one. It’s true that “woah” is sometimes seen, but it’s nowhere near as common as “whoa”. Macquarie Dictionary gives it a brief mention as an alternative spelling. In the US, Merriam-Webster hasn’t even gone that far yet.

Q: They’d rather go to “whoa”?

A: Indeed. Which brings us back to the phrase. “From go to whoa” talks about going from start (go) to finish/stopping (whoa) – all rather self explanatory. Curiously though, you’ll only tend to find this expression in Australia and New Zealand.

Q: Whoa. Really?

A: Yep. An example might be, “from go to whoa, the rollout was a disaster”. Or, “the horse led the race, from go to whoa”.

Q: So it’s definitely not “go to woe”?

A: Not at all. It’s easy to see why the mistake is made, however, as “woe” is a more common word than “whoa”. And in contexts when something is being described as a disaster, the presence of “woe” probably feels correct.

Q: Fair enough. But can you explain then why some people get it back to front?

A: Do you mean saying “whoa to go” (or “woe to go”)?

Q: Yes! Even people who have spelt “whoa” correctly and know what the phrase means I have seen use it this way round.

A: Well, that’s simply a case of being wrong. Maybe the idea of ending with a more common “…to go” feels more natural and that causes the mistake.

Q: So, to recap, the phrase is only ever “from go to whoa” – yeah?

A: That’s right. Obviously be aware that some clever pun-loving sub editors might purposefully change it to “go to woe” if a story talks about a woeful situation. But for everything else, you’ll always want to go from “go to whoa”.

Q: Whoa! I think it’s time to go.

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