Q: Are you familiar with a rhyme or riddle about a V who meets a W, and asks why he’s called a Double U instead of a Double V, and W replies that he’s “Double you”? I read it as a child, about 50 years ago, and can’t find it anywhere.
A: You’re thinking about a poem that originally appeared in an American children’s magazine near the end of the 19th century.
Here’s an image that accompanied the poem, “V. and W.,” by Charles I. Benjamin, in the May 1885 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine:
“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.”
But why, really, is the “w” called a “double u” and not a “double v”?
The 23rd letter of the English alphabet is called a “double u” because it was originally written that way in Old English.
As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “When, in the 7th cent., the Latin alphabet was first applied to the writing of English, it became necessary to provide a symbol for the sound /w/, which did not exist in contemporary Latin.”
Latin once had an almost identical sound “originally expressed by the Roman U or V as a consonant-symbol,” the OED says, but “before the 7th cent. this Latin sound had developed into /v/.”
“The single u or v therefore could not without ambiguity be used to represent (w),” the dictionary explains, and so “the ordinary sign for /w/ was at first uu.”
In any case, the “w” sound couldn’t have been represented by a double “v” because the letter “v” didn’t exist in Old English, where “f” represented an “f” or a “v” sound, depending on vocal stresses, according to the OED.
In early versions of “Cædmon’s Hymn,” which originated in the seventh century and is considered the oldest documented poem in Old English, “w” is written as “uu” in uuldurfadur (glorious father) and uundra (wonder).
In Old English, the /w/ sound could appear before the letters “l,” “r,” and “n,” as well as before vowels, but that usage died out in Middle English.
As the OED notes, the silent “w” in the Modern English “write” is a survivor of that usage, as was the “w” in “wlonk” (splendid) in 16th-century Scottish poetry.
Cædmon’s short poem first appeared in writing in Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”), a church history written in Latin around 731 by the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede.
In the next few years, scribes inserted Old English versions of the poem in two copies of the manuscript, now known as the Moore Bede (734–737) and the St. Petersburg Bede (732-746).
Here’s a lightly edited version of the hymn in the Moore Bede (MS Kk.5.16 at the Cambridge University Library):
“Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard / metudæs maecti end his modgidanc / uerc uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihuaes / eci dryctin or astelidæ.”
(“Now we must praise the heavenly kingdom’s guardian, / the creator’s might and his conception, / the creation of the glorious father, thus each of the wonders / that he ordained at the beginning.”)
The text of the poem in the St. Petersburg Bede (lat. Q. v. I. 18 at the National Library of Russia) differs somewhat, but the use of “uu” in the relevant words is similar: uuldur fadur and uundra.
Later in the eighth century, Oxford says, the ƿ (or wynn), a character in the runic alphabet, began replacing the “uu,” and the ƿ eventually became the dominant letter representing the “w” sound in Old English.
An Old English version of the poem from the first half of the 10th century, for example, has the two terms as ƿuldor fæder and ƿundra (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Tanner 10).
In the meantime, according to the OED, “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.”
Then in the 11th century, Oxford says, the “w,” a ligatured (that is, joined) form of “uu,” was “introduced into England by Norman scribes, and gradually took the place of ƿ, which finally went out of use about a.d. 1300.”
Since then, the “uu” and and ƿ of “Caedmon’s Hymn” have often been transcribed with “w” (as in wuldorfæder and wundra). However, the terms are spelled with a uu or ƿ in all seventeen Old English examples we’ve examined.
Similarly, the letter “w” frequently appears in transcriptions of other Old English writing in which the letter was originally a “uu” or a ƿ. A common example is Beowulf, an epic poem that is believed to date from the early 8th century.
The oldest surviving Beowulf manuscript, which dates from around the year 1000, spells the hero’s name with a wynn: beoƿulf. Here’s its first appearance in the manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f 132r at the British Library):
beowulf wæs breme (“beowulf was renowned”)
Getting back to the letter “w,” we’ll let the OED have the last word: “The character W was probably very early regarded as a single letter, although it has never lost its original name of ‘double U.’ ”