Arts & Culture

College Football Decoded: Wahoowa

Hoo originated the University of Virginia’s famous saying?

Photo: Yanping Soong. Used under Creative Commons license.

UVA playing against Penn State.

To outsiders, it may sound like the call of a bird or a line from a Dr. Seuss book, but in Charlottesville, Virginia, you’ll find the phrase “Wahoowa” just about everywhere: emblazoned on t-shirts, peeking out from signs in store windows, bouncing off the walls of Scott Stadium, and echoing across the Lawn. Although the saying is ever-present now, used as both a cheer and a friendly greeting among University of Virginia faithful, no one’s quite sure where it came from. 

“When I wrote the history of UVA football in 2009, it was frustrating because you just couldn’t nail it down,” says Jerry Ratcliffe, a sports journalist who covers all things UVA and ACC and wrote The University of Virginia Football Vault: The History of the Cavaliers. “I came across three different leading theories, none of which are really provable.”

One theory links the saying to Dartmouth College, whose mascot at the time was the Indian and is credited with inventing the “Indian yell” in the 1870s. “At the time, a lot of schools borrowed colors from other schools—like Auburn and Florida got their colors from UVA,” Ratcliffe says. “There was a lot of that going on, so it’s not unlikely that we could’ve taken it from them.” 

The second story comes from Washington & Lee University, about seventy miles down the road in Lexington. “That story says that UVA was playing down at W&L for a baseball game, and the W&L students kept saying, ‘Look at those wahoos,’” Ratcliffe says. The Cavaliers apparently took it as a compliment. 

“The third might be my favorite,” Ratcliffe says. “There was an old opera house in Charlottesville in the 1800s and 1900s called the Levy Opera House. A singer named Natalie Floyd Otey was singing there one night, and sang a song called ‘Where’er You Are, There Shall My Love Be,’—I’m sure it was a big hit in 1893. Students in the audience were probably liquored up a little bit, and by the end of the show, the crowd had changed the lyrics from ‘Where’er you are,’ to ‘wahoowa.’”

But for Ratcliffe, like most of the UVA fanbase, the origin of the saying is less important than its meaning today. “It’s symbolic of the whole school, not just our athletics,” he says. “It’s a real source of pride.”

This article is part of a G&G series that decodes widely used but little understood phrases in college football.