There are dad words, and there are granddad words, and there are great-granddad words. Over the years, zowie has progressed upward in those ranks. Even when I was a kid it was the sort of word I saw in cartoons and old books (as a 1962 article in the Spectator put it, “Think of the United States as a 3,000-mile-broad comic strip where significant occasions go bam, pop and zowie”).
But I did hear it used in full earnest once. I was riding in a car, somewhere in the late ’70s or early ’80s, when the driver exclaimed “Zowie! He almost hit him!” I didn’t even pay attention to the near-accident, so entertained was I by the word uttered by the driver… who was my dad.
This word has a few surprises awaiting you if you go digging up its early days. Although its popularity crested in the 1940s, it emerged around the turn of the century: Green’s Dictionary of Slang has an earliest citation from 1902, and I haven’t found an earlier one… in the sense in question.
If you look in Google Books, you will get quite a lot of hits that are not the sense in question.
This is because Google Books also has books in Polish. The Polish word zowie – now archaic; the more modern version is zwie – is the third-person singular present of zwać, which means ‘call’ or ‘be called’ (i.e., ‘name’ or ‘summon’). It has nothing at all to do with our English word zowie, and it doesn’t sound the same either – it’s said about like “soviet” but with a “z” in place of the “s” and without the “t” at the end.
It’s also because it shows up from time to time as a first name.
You’re may think of Zowie Bowie, the son of David Bowie. As David Bowie was the stage name of David Jones, Zowie Bowie is actually Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones; note that this Zowie rhymes with Bowie, making it a homophone for the name Zoë (which, however, is typically a woman’s name). I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that at least some of the people named Zowie who show up sporadically in the early 1900s – such as one of a couple named Walter and Zowie and another of the couple Seymour and Zowie Tufts – might have been using a variant of Zoë. On the other hand, the musical group Zowie’s Zobo Band, which played in Dartmouth in 1908, might not have followed that pattern.
Beyond those instances, however, pretty much every other use of zowie that you’ll find is an interjection. But while most of the time it is the same class as “Wow!” “Yikes!” “Holy cow!” and “Hot damn!” – and nearly always has an exclamation mark on it – there are a few more violent uses too.
There’s the “potato bug exterminator” mentioned in The American Flint in 1913, wherewith one may dispose of said bugs “by taking two blocks of hard wood, hickory for instance, and cutting them about five inches long, three inches wide and two inches thick, placing one in each hand, gently treading to the potato patch, placing one bug at a time on the block in one hand and ‘zowie’ with the other.” In Pearson’s Magazine in 1914, there are explosions:
The explosions followed each other rapidly…
And there are gunshots, as seen in Our Navy in 1915: “Nothing was heard but the steady purr of the beating motor, when suddenly—‘Zowie! Zowie!’—two shots rang out through the balmy California air.”
Which is arguably ironic, because zowie is thought originally to have been more like the steady purr of the beating motor: as Merriam-Webster says, “The word zowie was inspired by the sound of a speeding vehicle—a new phenomenon when the word entered the lexicon in 1902, the year before the Ford Motor Company sold its first car.” GDOS agrees that it’s “echoic of speed.” But the OED and Wiktionary are mute on its origins. And when you look at the available quotations – in the dictionaries and in Google Books – even the earliest ones aren’t imitative of a speeding vehicle; they all go with the “astonishment” and “admiration” that are part of the dictionary definitions.
OK, but how about astonishment (if not admiration) at a speeding vehicle? I really do feel like my dad gave me the whole deal there – or would have if there had been actual violence (gunshots? explosions? bug-squashing at least?). Especially if one of the cars had been driven by someone called Zoë.