The alphabet didn't always have 26 letters, and W is one of the newer letters. Today, we'll look at why it's called "double-U" when it looks like a "double-V."
VOICEMAIL: “Hi, Grammar Girl. I have a question about a letter of the alphabet. I always grew up singing W, X, Y, and Z; but when I was taking German class in college, W was pronounced “double-veh,” and that got me thinking about what's up with that letter. The W to us looks like two V's put together, unless you're doing cursive, and then it can kinda look like two U’s put together. But neither one is correct in saying "v-v" or "u-u," or so what's up with the letter W and it’s weird name. Thank you.”
Like many of the words we use in English, we have Latin to thank for our alphabet. With only a few exceptions, the letters we know and love trace their roots at least back to ancient Rome.
One of those exceptions, however, is the weird and wonky letter W.
The letter W is young
The letter W is one of the youngest letters of the English alphabet, not arriving until somewhere around the 11th century, and has the distinction of being the only one named after a different letter of the alphabet. Not only that, based on the way we almost always see the letter printed, it’s not even named after the correct other letter!
Our caller isn’t the only one to wonder why we call a letter that looks like two V’s that have been welded together “double U.”
The answer, weirdly, is that the name of the letter is much older than the letter itself.
Latin didn't have a W sound
Back in the 7th century, when English started being written using Latin letters, there was a problem with how to write the /w/ sound. Latin had no such sound, and so had never developed a letter for it.
Since it was slightly similar to the sound represented by the letter U, that seemed like a natural choice, but English also had a /u/ vowel sound, so early scribes started using “uu” to represent that specific sound.
After about a hundred years of that, people in Britain started using a letter from the Runic alphabet called “wyn,” which looks a bit like a combination of lowercase letter P and a backwards “y” (“ƿ”), and before long the “uu” all but disappeared on the island.
UU became common in Europe
Although the “uu” convention disappeared in England, it continued in Europe. Some German dialects adopted it for their /w/ sound, and French, like Latin, didn’t have a letter W, so “uu” was used to represent Germanic or Celtic loan words and proper names with that sound in them.
Over time, the “uu” started to change into a single character, with the two U’s being linked together.
UU was reintroduced in England
By the 11th century, Norman scribes from France re-introduced that “new” character back into use in England, and by around the year 1300, it replaced the Runic “wyn” character altogether.
Printers turned UU into VV
Finally, around 200 years later, in the same way that early printers helped standardize English spelling, they also decided that the W should look like the letter we know and love today, like two V’s instead of two U’s.
So there you have it: The letter W is called “double U” because that’s originally exactly what it was. Maybe the most bewildering thing about it is that despite starting as two letters, then being replaced in English by an entirely different character, then being brought back in as the newly imported single character that we know and love today, the name stuck.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
These assignments are appropriate for students in middle school and beyond.
The letter W is one of the newer letters in the alphabet. It may be a new idea to students that the alphabet didn’t always have 26 letters. Have students read the article on this page or listen to the audio version in the Grammar Girl podcast, available on the "how to write faster" page on this site and through Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.
Assignment #1 (Intermediate)
Have students identify the letters that were added to the alphabet after the letter W and write a reflection piece about how, when, and why each letter was added.
Assignment #2 (Advanced)
Benjamin Franklin was an advocate of English spelling reform and even proposed dropping certain letters from the alphabet.
Have students research Benjamin Franklin’s stance on spelling and write a reflection piece on the letters Franklin wanted to eliminate and why. Here are some questions they may want to consider:
- Why did Franklin target specific letters for elimination?
- Did he propose new letters to take their place?
- Do students think communication would have been improved by adopting a simpler spelling system?
- How would a transition between spelling systems have worked? What are some of the challenges?
- If spelling were simplified, would we lose the connections between word origins and spelling, and if so, is that important?
- What is an example of a country that has changed its spelling system?
Grammar Girl also has articles and podcasts on spelling reform if you’d like to supplement the lesson with those.