Fast Mash

  • Win comes from Old English winnan (work at, strive for) and gewinnan (gain by working at, striving for)
  • Ge- is a verbal prefix that English has since lost
  • The verb has deep roots in Germanic languages
  • By 12th-c., win meant “gain, be victorious”
  • By 14th-c., win became a noun (winn, gewinn): “conflict, strife, victory, wealthy”

Modern Winners

Recently, a colleague sent me an email with the subject: “21st century metaphor FTW.” In the email, she shared a simile that likened legislative budget-slashing to “Fruit Ninja addicts in Arcade Frenzy Mode.” It was clever, smart, and quirky. It worked—surprisingly, since it refers to a smartphone game essentially new to the whole enterprise we call the human experience. Indeed, for the win.

Which is what FTW stands for, if you don’t know.

FTW is commonly used as a form of adverbial commentary in online conversations. Various Internet and online slang dictionaries define it as adding cheerful emphasis, usually earnest but sometimes tongue-in-cheek, to a success, victory, or to something its user simply judges as good. The phrase appears to have originated from online gaming argot, where win lives a more literal life, but has since jumped into our broader lexicon of digital meta-commentary.

I did come across some claims that the phrase started with Hollywood Squares. (“I choose Peter Falk for the win.”) Given its recency and role in digital environments, I think online gaming is the more sensible provenance. Curiously, I came across little discussion about the possible influence that sports idioms might have had. It seems to me that FTW had something of an active life before online gaming, but its use in that environment helped it to burgeon.

Peter Falk reference #ftw.

Speaking of the online life of win, I also came across for the first time the phrase wins the Internet. In online forums, this phrase can offer sincere or ironic approval of a post in the discussion, an expression of so-called “Chanspeak,” named after the notorious 4chan forum. More generally, “wins the Interent” characterizes something’s virality, e.g., PSY’s “Gangnam Style” song/dance and its parade of imitations have variously won the interent. Yes, the tune is now lodged in your cranium for the rest of the day. My bad.

And speaking of viral, we also have the meta-commentary of winning, which spread thanks to Charlie Sheen’s addlepated blustering of late. Online, it seems to lead a similar, though now less active, life as FTW. As in, I fit digital meta-commentary and Hollywood Squares into the same blogpost #winning. However, winning is still hanging on in speech, used in the same way but often uttered with a singsong pitch and ding-dong tone.

The language of Interent subcultures and the way language spreads online are fascinating in their own rights. But I am stuck on the particular meaning of win in these three examples, especially as they have taken off from their original contexts in the ether. What are they winning, per se?

See, these expressions can be used to characterize more obvious “wins”: I just got promoted at my job #ftw or I graduated from college summa cum laude #winning. But, in my experience, they usually don’t characterize such things. They characterize little, oddball, or clever accomplishments or moments of satisfaction. (That same colleague brilliantly added “digital schadenfreude.”) What’s the big deal with me referencing Peter Falk? Nothing, just a boost to my cultural cachet. What’s the big deal with someone’s quirky parody of a popular song getting a million hits online? Maybe one’s 15 minutes (although in these days, possibly many more), indeed quite nice in an age where so much noise competes for our attention. And these small, quirky “wins” seem to come in the face of what, some nameless, anonymous force of opposition—the World, Existence, the Other, the Void, Modern Inconveniences?

Whatever the case may be, I think we ultimately use these expressions not to trumpet ourselves, but to build connections. FTW and winning point to tiny triumphs over everyday hassles that we can all relate to and empathize with. And viral videos are as much about “Did you see this video?” as the contents of the video. Here, perhaps win does not imply competition after all.

So, where does the word win come from, anyhow?


Outside of these special usages in digital environments, we modern English speakers win lotteries, prizes, awards, contests, various games, arguments, campaigns, and wars. 

The word comes from the Old English winnan. The i was pronounced like ee and the -an marks the infinitive form of the verb (to win). Forces of economy lopped the inflection off over time, as with many of English’s other verb markings. (Remember conjugating those verbs in Latin class—amo, amas, amat…? Well, there was once ic winne, þu winnst, he winn…) And there is also record of gewinnan, with the ge- pronounced like the ye in “yes” and functioning as a verbal prefix.

Wait, verbal prefix? Yeah, like the for– in forswear or the be– in becalm.

There is still a bit of uncertainty surrounding exactly how this ge– prefix worked in Old English. If you speak or have studied any Dutch or German, you’ll recognize this prefix added to verbs to form past participles. Past participles are a specific form a verb can take. They are most obvious in irregular verbs, say, in write, wrote, written. Let’s use this verb as an example. Each function of the past participle follows in parenthesis.

  1. I have written an email to the Sasquatch (perfect tense).
  2. The email to the Sasquatch was written (passive voice).
  3. I sent the email written for the Sasquatch (adjective phrase).
  4. Written for the Sasquatch, the email contains an invitation to my wedding (adverb phrase).
  5. The email written, I starting writing one to David Duchovny (the fancy-named nominative absolute and reason so many of us hated grammar lessons).

Of course, this was an elaborate excuse to bring up David Duchovny. David Duchovny #ftw

Now, in Old English, this geprefix could be used to form past participles, but it didn’t have to be used. And among other roles, it could also be affixed to nouns and verbs to convey the result of an action (so-called resultative verbs). This prefix was dying out in Middle English, although it did hang on as and i (which sound like the in sit). The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that it is still disguised in the words alikeaware, and handiwork

Anyways, we have winnan, which meant “to work at, strive for, fight, struggle, vanquish” in Old English and gewinnan, which conveys more of gaining or getting as a result of working and striving. You can see the resultative aspect of ge– at work in the latter word. We might understand winnan as doing the work while gewinnan as the gaining of a product of the work. In this light, win seems closer to the sense of earn.

Already by the 12th-c., though, the Oxford Dictionary of Etymology records win as denoting gain and be victorious, and the Online Etymology Dictionary indeed observes that win ultimately fuses these two senses.  From the verb came the noun. Winn, gewinn, and iwin (Middle English) meant conflict and strife in the 12th-c, and, later in the 14th-c., it communicated the result of such conflict or strifevictory, wealth, gains. It also seems that the transitive form of the verb (i.e., to win the battle) followed its earlier, intransitive sense.

The lineage of winnan has a robust life in ancient Germanic languages, with some interesting and subtle differences in meaning across languages and time:

  • Old Frisian, winna (obtain)
  • Old Saxon, winnan (suffering)
  • Middle Low German and Middle Dutch, winnen (till, obtain, acquire)
  • Old High German, winnan (rage, contend) and gewinnan (gain by labor)
  • Old Norse, vinna (labor, gain)
  • Gothic, (ga)winnan (suffer)

These forms trace back to the Proto-Germanic *wenwanan and might be related to the origin of wish, whose etymology is connected to, of all things, Venus. But that’s for another occasion.  

Now, why won? Why is won the past tense and past participle (he won, the battle having been won)? This is due a little something called ablaut, which, to put it simplistically, entails changing vowels to change meanings. In our case, we are dealing with strong verbs in Germanic languages. These verbs change their vowels to form the past tense, e.g., write, wrote, written. These have given English a lot of irregular verbs. Contrast strong verbs to so-called weak verbs, which in English is most verbs and takes on a simple -ed or –t (typed, dreamt).

And why does won rhyme with un and not on? This is big stuff, too. For starters, in Old and Middle English was long (as in no). But between ~1350-1700 there took place something called the Great Vowel Shift which caused long vowels to became pronounced with tongue higher in the mouth and with the mouth more closed. For instance, the vowel in five once rhymed with fee but now with high). It had consequences for more than just pronunciation. As Baugh and Cable (2002) nicely summarize:

It will be noticed that the Great Vowel Shift is responsible for the unorthodox use of the vowel symbols in English spelling. The spelling of English had become fixed in a general way before the shift and therefore did not change when the quality of long vowels changed. Consequently our vowel symbols no longer correspond to the sounds they once represented in English and still represent in other modern languages. (p. 239)

Wins the Day

To rage, to suffer. To till. To me, there is a very laborious, backbreaking, sweaty effort connoted in these older meanings. And vanquish adds an element of sheer power. Winning the lottery or #winning seem like a far cry from such effort. Almost wimpy. Well, with a recent Powerball jackpot of about $590 million, “wimpy” may not be the best word, but it’s interesting how winning in this situation typically implies quitting (one’s job). But don’t let me romanticize the past, especially when it comes to language. Language constantly changes, and arguments of better or worse aren’t productive.

See, win still has a lot of muscle. It just uses a different muscle. Think about the phrasal verbs formed out of win and the various efforts, particularly of the tongue, they convey:

  • Win out and win through, highlighting victory through some sort of persistence or endurance
  • Win back, focusing on the recovery of something lost
  • Win away and win over, featuring an element of cajolery

It’s curious, the way languages contract and expand. Win has lost  ge-, but it gained some marvelous shades of meaning with the help of these prepositions. And observe how win has taken up the rhetorical rather the physical.

Win still lives a rich and hearty life. We have winning tickets and winning smiles. Winnings retains the sense of monetary gain. Breadwinner (attested ~1821) holds on to the sense of toil to earn a living. And that peculiar sports superlative winningest, which is attested all the way back in 1804. Speaking of long days and rolled-up sleeves, politicians can win the day. More obscurely, a winning is an opening from which coal has been mined, or is simply a bed of coal itself. And boats can win shores.

And what about winsome? Well, that uses the Old English wynn, “pleasure, delight.” That y had a sound like the in the French tu. As Raymond Chandler first wrote in his masterpiece of hard-boiled detective fiction, The Long Goodbye (1953), “Take it easy, Doc. You can’t win them all.”

Ending on a clever note #ftw

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