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W, w [Called ‘double-you’]. The 23rd LETTER of the modern Roman ALPHABET as used for English. The Romans had no letter suitable for representing the phoneme /w/, as in OLD ENGLISH, although phonetically the vowel represented by v (as in veni, vidi, vici) was close. In the 7c, scribes wrote uu for /w/, but from the 8c they commonly preferred for English the runic symbol wynn (ƿ). Meanwhile, uu was adopted for /w/ in continental Europe, and after the Norman Conquest in 1066 it was introduced to English as the ligatured w, which by 1300 had replaced wynn. Early printers sometimes used vv for lack of a w in their type. The name double-u for double v (French double-v) recalls the former identity of u and v, though that is also evident in the cognates flour/flower, guard/ward, suede/Swede, and the tendency for u, w to alternate in digraphs according to position: maw/maul, now/noun.

Sound value

In English, w normally represents a voiced bilabial semi-vowel, produced by rounding and then opening the lips before a full vowel, whose value may be affected.

Vowel digraphs

(1) The letter w commonly alternates with u in digraphs after a, e, o to represent three major phonemes. Forms with u typically precede a consonant, with aw, ew, ow preferred syllable finally: law, saw, taut; dew, new, feud; cow, how loud. (2) When the preceding vowel opens a mono-syllable, silent e follows the w: awe, ewe, owe (but note awful, ewer, owing). (3) Word-finally, w is almost always preferred to u (thou is a rare exception), but w occurs medially quite often (tawdry, newt, vowel, powder), and the choice of letter may be arbitrary (compare lour/lower, flour/flower, noun/renown). (4) In some words, digraphs with w have non-standard values: sew, knowledge, low. Final -ow with its non-standard value in low occurs in nearly four times as many words as the standard value in how. (5) In the name Cowper, ow is uniquely pronounced as oo in Cooper. (6) Final w in many disyllables evolved from the Old English letter yogh (ʒ) for g, as in gallows, hallow, tallow, bellows, follow, harrow, borrow, morrow, sorrow, furrow (compare German Galgen, heiligen, Talg, Balg, folgen, Harke, borgen, Morgen, Sorge, Furche).


(1) The digraph wh occurs wordinitially, and in ScoE, IrE, often in AmE, and among some RP speakers it has the once universal voiceless, aspirated pronunciation often represented as /hw/, sometimes as /ʌʌ/: whale, wharf, what, wheat, wheel, wheeze, whelk, when, whelp, where, whet, whether, which, while, whimper, whip, whirl, whisker, whistle, white, whither, whorl. Such forms were mostly spelt hw in Old English. The h in whelk appears to be a late insertion. (2) Several common parallel spellings without h are homophones for speakers who do not make the w/wh distinction: whale/wail, where/ware, whet/wet, whether/weather, whey/way, which/witch, whig/wig, while/wile. See WH-SOUND.

Silent W

(1) nitial w fell silent before r in the 17c, but is written in wrack, wraith, wrangle, wrap, wrath, wreak, wreath, wreck, wren, wrench, wrest, wrestle, wretch, wriggle, wright, wring, wrinkle, wrist, writ, write, writhe, wrong, wrote, wroth, wreak, wrought, wrung, wry. The form awry derives from wry. (2) The w in two, who, whose, whom is thought to have fallen silent under the rounding influence of the following u-sound, while the w in whole (cognate with hale, heal) and whore was added in the 15c under the influence of dialects in which a w-sound arose before the vowel o (as in the pronunciation of one). This was once the case with whoop, which now has the optional pronunciations ‘hoop’ and ‘(h)woop’. A modern instance of adding an etymologically inappropriate w- occurs when Greek-derived holistic (compare holocaust, holograph, from hólos entire) is spelt wholistic, on the assumption that it derives from whole. (3) Medial w has fallen silent after s in answer, sword, and after consonants when initiating unstressed final syllables in English placenames: Chiswick (‘Chizzik’), Norwich (‘Norritch’, ‘Norridge’), Southwark (‘Suthark’), Welwyn (‘Wellin’). This w has also fallen silent in nautical usage, with adapted spellings bosun, bo's'n for boatswain, and gunnel for gunwale. (4) In informal or non-standard, often archaic, speech, w is elided in allus always, forrad forward, ha'p'orth half-pennyworth, summat something. (5) Will, would lose w when they assimilate to preceding pronouns, as in he'll, I'll, it'll, he'd, I'd.


(1) The sound /w/ has other spellings. Because lip-rounding is a feature of most pronunciations of u, /w/ is spelt u in some words, chiefly of FRENCH derivation, after g, q, and s, as in languish, question, quiet, suite, persuade. (2) Recent French loans may keep the French oi for the sound /wa/: boudoir, memoir, repertoire, reservoir, soirée, a pattern which may have influenced the re-spelling of quire as choir in the late 17c. (3) A change of pronunciation has given an unspelt initial /w/ to one, once, but not to their cognates only, alone. (4) R is sometimes spoken /w/. This has long been regarded as a SHIBBOLETH of some kinds of BrE upper-class accents and may occur in the speech of small children and in imitation of such speech (Weally weally big!), and in defective articulation. It is sometimes referred to as rhotacism. (5) Historically there has been some parallel development of Anglo-Norman spellings with w and French spellings with g: ward/guard, warranty/guarantee (compare French garde, garantie), reward/regard, -wise/guise. See A, E, H, I, O, RHOTACISM.

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W1 / ˈdəbəlˌyoō/ (also w) • n. (pl. Wsor W's ) 1. the twenty-third letter of the alphabet. ∎  denoting the next after V in a set of items, categories, etc. 2. a shape like that of a letter W: [in comb.] the W-shaped northern constellation of Cassiopeia. W2 • abbr. ∎  Wales. ∎ Baseball walk (sense 3 of the noun ). ∎  warden. ∎  (in tables of sports results) games won. ∎  watt(s). ∎  Wednesday. ∎  week. ∎  (w) weight. ∎  Welsh. ∎  West or Western: 104° W W Europe. ∎  (in personal ads) White. ∎ Cricket (on scorecards) wicket(s). ∎  width: 23 in. H x 20.5 in. W x 16 in. D. ∎  (in personal ads) widowed. ∎  (in genealogies) wife. ∎  (in shortwave transmissions) with. ∎  women's (clothes size). ∎ Physics work. • symb. ∎  the chemical element tungsten.

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W 23rd letter of the English alphabet and a letter included the alphabets of in several w European languages. Like f, u, v and y, it was derived from the Semitic letter vaw (a name meaning hook). The Greeks adopted vaw into their alphabet as upsilon. The Romans made two letters out of upsilon – Y and V (see V; Y). The V was first pronounced as a modern English w and later as a modern English v. Norman-French writers of the 11th century created the modern form of the letter by doubling a u or v to represent the Anglo-Saxon letter wynn, which had no counterpart in their alphabet. In modern English w is what phoneticians call a lip-rounded velar semivowel, made like the oo vowel sound in zoo but functioning as a consonant, as in war and swing. Like y, it sometimes has a vowel quality, but usually only when used with another vowel as in new, now or flow. It is silent in such words as answer and wring (words in which it was originally pronounced). In some words introduced by the combination wh, the w is today not sounded (as in who, whom and whore). But in which, what, white and whisk, a voiceless form of w is used. However, in some dialects of English, and all of those in England, this voiceless w is regularly being replaced by ordinary w.

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W. Abbreviation for Werk(e) (Ger., work(s)), the same as Opus. In Kinsky's Beethoven catalogue, WoO signifies Werk ohne Opuszahl, ‘work without opus number’.

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W ★½ I Want Her Dead 1974 (PG)

A woman and her husband are terrorized and must find out why. A single letter “W” is found at the scene of the crimes. Notable only as model Twiggy's first film. 95m/C VHS, DVD . Twiggy, Dirk Benedict, John Vernon, Eugene Roche; D: Richard Quine.

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w Meteorol., symbol for dew
• (ital.) Chem., symbol for mass fraction
• (ital.) Physics, symbol for a velocity component
• Spectroscopy, symbol for weak absorption

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W The twenty-third letter of the modern English alphabet, originating from a ligature of the Roman letter represented by U and V of modern alphabets.

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