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warren clements: word play

The love of money is the root of all evil, says the Bible's Book of Timothy. It turns out that money may also be the woot.

Experienced gamers, those who can navigate video games without having their avatars blown up or laughed off the screen, will be familiar with woot. I was not, until I wrote an e-mail to a friend in which I mentioned that I had received a bit of money. His response was a single word: "Woot!"

Presuming that this was not a misprint for "hoot" or "woof," I investigated further, only to find that opinions differ.

The most prevalent thought is that woot began life in the 1980s as w00t, with two zeroes instead of o's. It was born as part of l33tspeak, more conventionally spelled leetspeak. The substitution of 3's for e's was part of an insider's code created by serious computer whizzes, both to confuse outside eyes and to identify those in the know.

According to this origin story, w00t meant wonderful, as in woo-hoo or whoop, two words from which it may have been adapted. The more the expression was used, the more it travelled outside the group and was embraced by less exclusive users. W00t began a second life as woot.

There are competing theories. An entry in the online Urban Dictionary suggests that, for fans of the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, woot was short for, "Wow! Loot!" If players survived enough challenges and emerged with enough treasure, "woot" would acknowledge both their fortune and their good fortune. Eventually, by this telling, woot lost its narrow application to loot and became a convenient way of cheering for anything in print. The Urban Dictionary offers an example: "I defeated the dark Sorcerer! Woot!"

Another theory holds that woot began as an acronym, but there is no consensus on what it was an acronym for. The leading candidate is the triumphal cry, "We Owned the Other Team," but other contenders include "Waste Of Our Time," "Want One Of Those" and "Way Out Of Topic." They all have the ring of chat-line credibility.

The inconvenience in having several meanings for an acronym is that, unless the context is obvious, it is hard for the reader to know which was intended. If someone rhapsodizes about her latest iPad and receives the reply, "WOOT," she won't know whether the sender is dismissing the gadget as a waste of time, coveting it or, for that matter, commenting on the price tag. "Wow! Loot!"

Possibly both histories are correct: that a group of code-writers was using w00t to mean wonderful while a different group of gamers devised woot as an acronym. It is also possible that there is back-formation at work, the same phenomenon that has led people to swear that posh is short for "port outward, starboard home" and that news is short for "north, east, west, south." Neither of those words began as an acronym, but the phrases were tacked on later because they sounded good enough to be true.

For students of Shakespeare, another woot (or, more properly, woo't) may spring to mind. In the fifth act of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet and Laertes jump into Ophelia's open grave, engage in a wrestling match and, after they have been dragged from the freshly dug plot, continue to insult each other.

Hamlet says to Laertes, in effect: Any way you can mourn, I can mourn better. "'Swounds, show me what thou'lt do," he cries. "Woo't weep? Woo't fight? Woo't fast? Woo't tear thyself? Woo't drink up eisel? Eat a crocodile?"

For the record, 'swounds is short for God's wounds and eisel means vinegar. Woo't means "would you" rather than wonderful. By play's end, neither Hamlet nor Laertes will be in a position to say, "We owned the other team." And Hamlet's mother, rather than drink from that poisoned cup of wine, should have sipped woot beer.