Doubling down on the letter “w”

Posted on November 27, 2023

Ever wondered why the letter “w” is called the letter “double-u”? I know I have. I mean, why isn’t it “double-v” like it is in French? It sure would make more sense! Yep, these are the questions that keep a language professional up at night.

And not only does the letter “w” stand out for this oddity, but it’s also unique for a couple of other reasons. Unlike any other letter in the alphabet, its name has more than one syllable. And it’s also the only letter whose name describes the way it looks rather than the way it sounds. (I know you’re running through the rest of the alphabet right now. Trust me. I’ve checked.)

When I searched “Why is the letter ‘w’ called ‘double-u’ and ‘not double-v’?,” I got lots of hits. So it seems I’m not alone in asking this question, which also seems to far predate the advent of the search engine. There was even a children’s poem written about this very conundrum back in the 1800s:

“Excuse me if I trouble you,”
Said V to jolly W,
“But will you have the kindness to explain one thing to me?
Why, looking as you do,
Folks should call you double U,
When they really ought to call you double V?”

Said W to curious V:
“The reason’s plain as plain can be
(Although I must admit it’s understood by very few);
As you say I’m double V;
And therefore, don’t you see,
The people say that I am double you.”

And so to finally put your minds at ease, here’s what I learned about the mysterious letter “w.”

Introduction into the English language

Unlike our modern English alphabet, the classical Latin alphabet had only 23 letters. Which ones were missing? The letters “j,” “u” and . . . you guessed it: “w.” In the classical Latin alphabet, the letter “v” originally represented the sounds “oo” and “uh” (like today’s “u”), as well as the sound “wuh” (like today’s “w”). But as time went on, the “wuh” sound evolved to become what we recognize today as a the sound represented by the letter “v.”

When the Latin alphabet was first used to write English (a Germanic language) in the 7th century, there was a problem: English contained the sound “wuh,” but the Latin alphabet no longer included a letter to represent this sound.

A new symbol was needed! And, at first, this was to be “uu.”

Aha! So now things are starting to make a little more sense, but first there was a slight detour ...

Wyn for the win?

By the 8th century, “uu” began to lose ground and was replaced with the ƿ or wyn, which is a letter of the Runic alphabet. Well now that looks more like a “p” than a “w”!

But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “in the mean time the ‘uu’ was carried from England to the continent, being used for the sound /w/ in the German dialects, and in French proper names and other words of Germanic and Celtic origin. In the 11th cent. the ligatured form was introduced into England by Norman scribes [. . .].”

So by the 14th century, the wyn finally lost, and there was a move toward a ligatured (or joined) form of “uu.”

“W”: The shapeshifter

Now we know where the letter originally got the name “double-u,” but we still don’t know why it’s shaped like two “v’s”! Well, this is where the story gets a little murkier, and perhaps a little less interesting. A number of sources attribute this new shape to the advent of the printing press in the 15th century.

According to the Reader’s Digest website, the letter was originally printed with “a single double-u block or even two “v’s” if [printers] didn’t have the less commonly used “w” block. Then, as the technology continued to progress and became more streamlined, [the letter] was replaced with a double-v block.”

So there you have it! The mysteries of the letter “w” uncovered!

But “w” isn’t the only letter with an interesting story. Perhaps you have an interesting tidbit to share about one of “w’s” 25 peers?

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The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Amanda Kenney

Amanda Kenney

Amanda Kenney

Amanda has always had an interest in language, living in both English and French in the Quebec countryside, Ottawa and Montreal. She earned a bachelor’s degree in translation from Concordia University and joined the Translation Bureau as a translator in 2007. Since 2021, she’s been working as a language analyst for the Language Portal of Canada, where she’s able to dive even deeper into her love of language and writing.



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Submitted by Mélanie Guay on November 27, 2023, at 14:49

It's nice to read your blogpost.

Submitted by Amanda Kenney on December 4, 2023, at 7:39

Thank you! I enjoyed reading yours as well!

Submitted by Gary on November 27, 2023, at 17:59

Very fun fact, and my one thing for the day. I would love to hear more about about this crazy thing called language. Feed me more please.

Submitted by Mary on November 28, 2023, at 9:46

Thank you for this lovely post. I enjoyed it very much (information and writing) This poem was one of those witty ones my mother used to read me and that was so deeply of her family's culture...

Submitted by Amanda Kenney on December 4, 2023, at 7:43

Thank you, Mary! I'm glad you enjoyed reading the post and that it brought back some fond memories.