W00t in the World?

Merriam-Webster has announced its word of the year for 2007—“w00t.” No, despite the fact that it just gave my spell-checker palpitations, that wasn’t a typo. This “word” is spelled—if “spelling” is the correct term—with zero in place of the letter o.

“W00t” comes from the world of electronic game-playing, where it is used as an exclamation of pleasure or triumph. It was chosen through a poll that was conducted online, which may explain why it received enough votes to become the word of the year. Why it is produced with numbers instead of letters remains, to me at least, unclear.

This depresses me greatly, for two reasons. First of all, I had never heard of “w00t.” I would like to believe this merely reflects the fact that I don’t play electronic games. I don’t even indulge in FreeCell and computer solitaire any more, having realized several years ago that I was becoming way too skilled at both and not liking what that said about how I was spending my time. Still, having a venerable institution like Merriam-Webster choose as its word of the year a term completely unfamiliar to me makes me feel terribly out of touch, stodgy, last century, and—okay, I’ll just say it—old.

Secondly, having had a close lifetime relationship with words and a somewhat more distant relationship with numbers, I have always believed the two to be separate species. True, they interact regularly, working together cordially in the common interest of clear communication. Yet each is true to the laws of its own kind. We don’t “spell” numerals, any more than we punctuate words with decimal points.

I suppose “woot” works well enough as a word, though it does sound as if it belongs in a “Tarzan” movie. (Jane: “Here come the great apes! I’m saved!” Apes: “Woot, woot, woot!”)

Edgar Rice Burroughs, however, would have spelled it the old-fashioned way, with four actual letters taken from the alphabet. Replace two of those letters with numbers, and you no longer have a word. Instead, you have produced an awkward hybrid.

Some hybrids, most notably the mule, are useful creatures with a well-earned and respected place in history. Others, such as the lion-tiger combination called a “liger,” seem to be mere curiosities, produced to prove that it can be done.

“W00t” belongs in the latter category. We can only hope, that, like most hybrids, it proves to be sterile.

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