“Uwu” — a singular word that can mean so many things. An internet slang that has had its meaning warped and expanded way beyond its original usage. From a small subculture in one corner of the internet to the mainstream social media stage, uwu has made everyone literally uwu. It is not just a word, but an emotion, a sound, a face, an emoticon and much more.
But exactly what does this word mean? The answer is not so direct. Uwu can mean many things depending on its context. It can be used to express cuteness, irony or even to be annoying. The most widespread meaning of the word is simply a “reaction to cuteness overload” or being “overwhelmed by cuteness.” Different people have their own definitions of uwu depending on how they were first introduced to the word. Anime fans might associate it with a character’s cute facial expression while a Tumblr or Twitter user might see it as an emoticon. Some people may even think of it as a reaction sound. There are so many different meanings that one website compiled 18 different meanings of uwu.
I like Twitter uwu. pic.twitter.com/gJQox5r1tE
— Ves.Dr@w (@DrwVes) February 19, 2020
However, uwu didn’t start out as being such a multi-dimensional word. To be honest, no one really knows where uwu was first used.
According to the website Know Your Meme, the word uwu was first spotted in an anime fanfiction back in November 2005. The author of the piece used it in the author’s note at the beginning of chapter six while apologizing for taking so long to upload the fanfiction. However, this is only the first confirmed usage of uwu on the internet. Where this author got the word from can only be speculated.
The answer might lie in anime. Japan and Japanese animation has a big kawaii culture, which directly translates into “cute” culture. Being kawaii is seen as a positive trait, both in real life and in entertainment. Mascots created for Japanese companies, festivals and even entire prefectures are made to be as cute as possible (see: Kumamon) and anime is filled with an enormous range of kawaii characters. These characters’ facial expressions are the inspiration for many emoticons and uwu might have been one of them. Breaking it down, the U’s of uwu were the eyes and the W the mouth. The author of the fanfiction where uwu was first spotted might have seen the word in some obscure manga and decided to use it.
So uwu was first used to mimic a cute facial expression. How exactly did it become what it is now? Like all things internet-y, the answer lies in social media. But not a mainstream social media platform, and certainly not the ones that exist now. The word probably lurked around in internet chatrooms and lesser-known social platforms until it hit Tumblr (which cannot exactly be called mainstream per se).
Sometime in 2014, a user claimed they heard the word more than they saw it, giving rise to a new meaning of uwu. The word expanded from one niche subculture to another, spreading through memes and edits online. People edited the emoticon onto company logos, faces and random images, making memes infused with the cuteness that is uwu. Just including the word in a post or picture made it a hundred times cuter and a thousand times more uwu.
— Twitter (@Twitter) October 22, 2018
Uwu gained more popularity after 2016, with Google Trends showing its use exponentially rising in 2017 and 2018, reaching a peak of 100 (the highest score for usage) in January 2020. As of mid-February 2020, its score is a whopping 97.
Along its rising path to fame, uwu picked up other siblings with similar but subtly different meanings and origins, like “owo,” where the O’s are the eyes and the W the mouth. The base emoticon of uwu began to be included in more complex emoticons, created using different punctuations.
In this era of rapidly changing slang in a world of virtual communication, it is no wonder that this cute little word could become so much more than what it originally set out to be. However, unlike some other English internet slang, uwu hasn’t changed at the core of what it means (see words like “woke” for example).
Uwu has stayed true to the kawaii culture. What has changed however, is how people perceive it. Uwu can be a word, an emoticon, a sound, anything you want it to be. And not many people will seriously argue with you over its meaning. People have accepted uwu’s many meanings, even adopting them into their own little mental slang dictionary — which is why it is an internet slang now. And as britannica.com says, newly-developed slang “will perish unless it is picked up by others.”
Most other internet slang has a concise meaning of their own after evolving from its original meaning. Sometimes there exists a few variants that mostly fall not too far from the tree. Uwu, on the other hand, seems to be more like a banyan forest — different trees with the same roots spread across a wide swath of Earth. Perhaps this is the way uwu has changed over time. Instead of drastically changing from its original meaning, it has made peace with the fact that it can be many things — all of which can overwhelm you with cuteness.
It just goes to show how interesting language development is on the internet. It shows how this three-letter word can turn into such a massive icon of subcultures previously unknown to the world. Uwu is now a culture of its own. And yet, one doesn’t even need to have a set meaning of the word in mind to understand what it means. A truly inclusive and personal slang term that you can use anywhere, anytime! uwu.