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WTF is a shorthand expression for “what the fuck?” which is commonly used in a wide range of contexts in online conversations, most prominently as an intensive (i.e. “WTF?!”) or an interrogative (i.e. "WTF do you mean?).
The online usage of its acronym WTF can be traced to Usenet newsgroups in the 1980s, with the earliest iteration in a discussion thread about The Grateful Dead, which was posted via net.music.gdead by Dick Dunn on October 31st, 1985:
BUT, can anyone shed even a little light on the lyrics of China Cat Sunflower? I’ve READ them; I know what all the words are. I still say, “WTF, over?” Someone’s playing with our heads on this one, but what’s all the word stew?
The expression “what the fuck” has its roots in colloquial American English, with the earliest known iteration in print found in the 1983 fiction Handling Sin by American author Michael Malone.
Gates hopped out of the cab. “What the fuck…” He looked at the teenager.
“Shit a brick. It’s the kid from the department store! Kure Beach, right?”
Various English word reference sites have cited U.S. military slang as the origin of the acronym, sometimes euphemized in NATO phonetic alphabet as “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” although it remains unattributed. According to Google Books, the phrase “what the fuck” (shown below, left) began appearing in print publications at the beginning of the 1960s while its acronym “WTF” (shown below, right) saw a notable increase in number of mentions starting in 1975, shortly after the foundation of World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) in 1973.
Throughout the 1990s, the usage of phrase became increasingly commonplace in Usenet newsgroups and internet chatrooms with the emergence of word filters and censorship of expletives in highly-trafficked chatrooms and message boards. The earliest Urban Dictionary definition of “WTF” was submitted by an anonymous user on December 10th, 1999:
What the fuck? Use it in place of expletives, a more polite alternative.
As of July 2012, there are more than 175 Urban Dictionary entries for the acronym, although the top voted definition refers to the World Taekwondo Federation, which is also abbreviated as “WTF.”
Usage in Domain Names
- February 2001: WTF.com (humor)
- May 2004:: The Daily WTF (humor)
- August 2005: WTF Comics (webcomic)
- December 2007: Best WTF (humor)
- March 2007: NYC WTF (local interest)
- January 2008: WTF Star Wars (fandom)
- February 2008: WTFCNN (media criticism)
- October 2008: Wall St. WTF (business news)
- September 2009: WTF with Marc Maron (podcast)
- October 2009: WTF Japan Seriously (humor)
- July 2010: WTF Art History (art)
- August 2010: WTF Tattoos (humor)
- August 2011: Top WTF (humor)
- December 2011: Most WTF (humor)
Usage in News Media
Many online publications in the news media and blogosphere have adopted “WTF” as a genre of news stories or a category tag, similar to offbeat news sections in print publications. Some of the most prominent sites with a dedicated WTF category range from Gawker Media blogs like Jezebel and Gizmodo, as well as BoingBoing and TechCrunch among others. In addition, most well-known photo and video sharing community platforms such as Tumblr, Reddit, Flickr, Pinterest, YouTube and Instagram, as well as music streaming sites Last.fm and Spotify.
- Wat: A variant of the English word “what” that is often used to express confusion or disgust, much like its better known acronym “WTF,” short for “what the fuck.” Although the term “wat” is most frequently used as an interjection without a question mark, it is sometimes used to caption reaction face images or peculiar images that would evoke similar responses.
- LOLWUT: A popular image macro and catchphrase used in online conversations to indicate feelings of confusion or amusement over a piece of media posted by someone else. Commonly pronounced “lol what,” the phrase is typically associated with the following picture.
- OMGWTFBBQ: Stands for “Oh My God What The Fuck Barbecue.” Little more than a meaningless jumble of acronyms, the phrase can be seen as a parody of popular internet acronyms in usage. To some extent, it has been also used to express confusion or lack of understanding, especially in the midst of incoherency.
- WTF H4X Short for “What The Fuck, Hacks.” It is used to express suprise and to accuse someone of hacking or cheating in an online game.
- Dafuq An interjection typically used in reaction to that which makes no sense or provokes severe confusion. It is short for the colloquial phrase “[what] the fuck?” and written without capital letters, spaces and punctuation.
- WTF Boom: A dubbed audio meme in which a normal video clip gets interrupted by a loud voice screaming “WHAT THE F-” cut off by an extremely loud explosion, followed by a sinister laugh.
- FTW: The anagram of “WTF” and an acronym that stands for “For the Win,” this expression is used to compliment or celebrate something that is considered praiseworthy.