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Luck out

Ravioli Rage on Aisle Five.

Dear Word Detective: The other day I mentioned to my wife that I had “lucked out” in finding a particular item I was looking for in a store. I then wondered about the origin of “lucked out” and “luck out.” Why is “out” tacked onto “lucked” and “luck”? — Warren I. Pollock, Glen Falls, Pennsylvania.

That’s a good question, and the answer is a bit more complicated than I first thought. Incidentally, my attempts to find any particular item in a store, especially in a grocery store, seem to face two separate but equally annoying hurdles. One is that the stores around here are routinely “out” of fairly basic things, making the trip at least partially a waste of time. The second is that determining whether the store has, for example, the particular peanut butter I want involves combing shelves that contain at least thirty-five other varieties of the stuff. A recent article in Fortune magazine, interestingly, attributed the success of the Trader Joe’s grocery chain in part to the small size of their stores and their limited selection of items in any one category. Tell me about it.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “luck out” as “to achieve success or advantage by good luck in a difficult, testing, or dangerous situation,” and dates the first appearance of the term in print to the early 1950s. That’s certainly the sense in which we use the phrase today, as synonymous with “to get lucky” (“I started making inquiries..and damned if I didn’t luck out and get steered into a good job,” J. Wambaugh, The Blue Knight, 1972). But there’s some indication that the phrase may once have meant exactly the opposite.

An entry in the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (published in 1985 and written by my parents, William and Mary Morris) notes that “luck out” was used during World War II to mean “to run out of luck,” specifically to be killed or wounded in action. My parents asked the book’s usage panel of authors and editors to vote on whether they agreed that the “new” usage of “luck out” to mean “get lucky” had superseded that “old” meaning. Surprisingly (this was 1985, remember), 26% of the panel preferred the old “out of luck” usage. Novelist Anthony Burgess, for instance, opined that “‘Lucked out’ is too close to ‘out of luck’ to mean its opposite.” Mr. Burgess was, of course, slightly off the mark on that, and “luck out” meaning “out of luck” has, as far as I can tell, completely disappeared today.

If “luck out” was indeed used to mean “run out of luck” during World War II, it couldn’t have been a very popular usage, because written examples are very hard to find. The use of “out” in “luck out” actually seems to suggest the “get lucky” meaning was more common from the outset. “Luck” as a verb was commonly used by itself and with such adjuncts as “into” to mean “get lucky” during the same period, a usage still common today (“The rent was fantastically low; she had lucked into it a couple of years ago through an artist friend,” 1970). If one “lucks out,” it’s because the likelihood of success is small to begin with and failure is probable, so in “lucking out,” you’re escaping “out” of a perilous or failure-prone situation.

Woot (W00T)

Dear Word Detective:  I’ve seen the word “woot” (sometimes spelled, more originally I have gathered, “w00t”), as an expression of joy for some prize or treasure, or something valuable that was otherwise unexpected. I first heard (or read) the term in the chat ramblings from an online game around, say 2004; when I asked about it, I was told it originated somewhere in the world of MMORPG’s, “massively multiplayer online roleplaying games” (or “many men online roleplaying girls,” a backronym that often proves true), but I’d like a real sleuth to see what he can find. — Josh.

Oh boy. Y’know, every so often it strikes me just how weird the internet has always been. I guess humanity, having pretty much exhausted the novelty of exotic lands and cultures, collectively decided to create a whole new bizarre dimension of reality where the Id could run wild and all bets were off. That whole “gender impersonation” thing, for example, strikes me as very strange. Then again, I’ve never played any online games, or, in fact, any computer game more sophisticated than Pong. Life is too short and so am I. Heck, I can hardly reach the keyboard most days.

“Woot” (as I will spell it to maintain an aura of sanity) is an exclamation roughly equivalent to “Hooray!” or “Whoopee!” Often (but not necessarily originally, as we shall see) constructed with two zeros in place of the “o”s (“w00t!”), it’s been a staple of online discussion groups, gaming communities, and bulletin boards since at least the 1990s. “W00t” spelled with zeros is one of the more well-known items of “leet” or “leetspeak,” a loose system of alternative orthography popular in hacker and gaming circles at that time in which certain letters of words are replaced with non-alphabetic characters usually vaguely resembling the letter (“7″ for “L,” for instance) or constructs of multiple symbols thought to resemble the letter (e.g., “/\/\” for “M”). The name “leet” (or “l33t,” if you’re drinking the Kool-Aid) is short for “elite,” a privileged status in early online gaming communities. “Leet” was officially over among the cool years ago, and today is used largely to mock hacker-wannabes (who are derided as “H4x0rs”).

The earliest citation found so far for “woot” in print comes from 1993, and a number of explanations offered for the word trace it to shortenings of or acronyms for various phrases supposedly popular among online gamers, such as “we own the other team” or “wondrous loot” (for “treasure” won during such games). But these theories, along with the one tying “woot” to the “root” account used by administrators of Unix computer systems, all lack any solid evidence. In several cases, in fact, the phrases supposedly “behind” the word only appeared long after “woot” itself was popular.

Fortunately, lexicographer Grant Barrett has done some heavy lifting for us on the subject of “woot,” and he makes a compelling case for his theory on his website (at

Barrett traces “woot” to the catch phrase “Whoot, there it is!”, which became a nationwide craze in the US in 1993. In fact, there were two popular hip-hop songs capitalizing on the phrase released that year, “Whoot There It Is” by the group 95 South, and “Whoomp! (There It Is)” by Tag Team.  The Tag Team song was the more successful, spending 45 weeks in the Billboard Top 100, and the group says that the “Whoomp” was in part drawn from the famous “woof woof” chant of the audience at the Arsenio Hall TV show around the same time. So if Barrett is right, and I think he is, “woot” was never short for, or an acronym for, anything. It’s just the sound of a someone having a good time.


BTW, whatever became of Joel Furr?

Dear Word Detective: I’ve heard that “tips” in a restaurant comes from the acronym “To Insure Prompt Service.” This sounds like a pre-internet urban legend. First of all it just sounds wrong, and second of all if it were true it should be “teps”: “To Ensure Prompt Service.” Could you “tip” me off to the correct origin? — Mark Jacobs.

Hmm. You seem to be using “pre-internet” in the sense of “pre-Enlightenment,” perhaps implying that the advent of sites such as has finally put paid to silly stories about Pop Rocks and the death of Mikey, but I have my doubts. It’s true that the net has made it much easier to check the veracity of emailed stories. One of the first wonders of the pre-web internet that I encountered, back in the early 1990s, was the usenet discussion group alt.folklore.urban, still going strong today, where popular fables were debunked by the dozens every day. But I still receive at least a few queries about classic linguistic urban legends every week. The problem seems to be that we have a natural tendency to believe such stories, but no compensating urge to actually investigate their truth. Oh well. At least I know I’ll never run out of questions.

I answered a query about the “tip” story a decade ago, but since it’s still making the rounds I’ll take another whack at it. The form of the story that my reader back then had encountered was “tip” supposedly being an acronym for “to insure promptness,” and he also raised the question of the proper word being, in such cases, “ensure” rather than “insure.” It’s true that “insure” has traditionally been used mostly in financial contexts (particularly to mean “to arrange a guarantee of compensation in case of loss or failure”), while “ensure” has been used in broader contexts to mean simply “to make sure something happens or is done” (“Dave’s credit card bill ensured that he went to work every day”). But both words (along with “assure”) are commonly used today in that general “make sure it happens” sense. So the fact that the term isn’t “tep” doesn’t prove much.

Fortunately, the story about”tip” being an acronym for “to insure promptness” (and its various variants) has much bigger problems. In the first place, acronyms, pronounceable words created from the initial letters of a phrase (such as NATO, AIDS, etc.) were very rare in English before World War II. (Similar but unpronounceable abbreviations, such as LCD or SSN, are usually called simply “initialisms.”) Since “tip” in the “gratuity” sense dates back to the early 18th century, it is extremely unlikely to have begun life as an acronym.

Furthermore, the origin of “tip” in this sense is not a huge mystery. It appears to be connected to the use of “tip” among urban thieves in the 17th century to mean “to pass something surreptitiously, especially money, to another person,” which in turn probably came from the even older (13th century) use of “tip” to mean “to touch lightly, especially as a warning.” There are several “tips” in English, including the noun meaning “the end, top or point of a thing” and the verb meaning “to fall over or cause to slope,” but this “tip” is most likely a descendant of the German “tippen,” meaning “to poke or tap lightly.” This sense of tapping someone lightly to communicate surreptitiously also underlies our use of “tip” to mean “inside or secret information.”

Lastly, unless there’s only one restaurant in town and you eat there every day, a good tip doesn’t “insure” (or “ensure”) promptness, since, at least on my planet, it’s given at the end of the meal. But I guess the more logical “trp” (To Reward Promptness) was just too hard to pronounce.