Woof or Weft?

By Maeve Maddox

A reader has a question about the old-fashioned nouns woof and weft:

It doesn’t come up often, but it bothers me when it does: a reference to the “warp and woof” of fabric (either physical or metaphorical) instead of “warp and weft.” I recently saw “warp and woof” in The New York Times. One dictionary says “woof (sometimes weft)” — suggesting that “woof” is preferred. Please say it isn’t so.

The nouns weft and woof are weaving terms. They derive from the verb to weave.

Weaving is the process of crossing threads or yarns to create a woven fabric. Picture an old-fashioned loom: a large wooden frame. One set of threads is fastened from top to bottom of the loom. These vertical threads are called the warp. Threads that cross from side to side, over and under the warp, are called the weft or the woof. Together, the warp and the weft (or woof) are the substance of the web thus created.

The reader clearly feels that weft is preferable to woof as the term for the cross threads in a woven fabric, but both words—weft and an earlier form of woof (owef)—appear in an 8th century Latin/English glossary. Both refer to the cross-threads.

This early form of woof appears as oof, ofe, owfe, and oufe before it acquires its initial w in the 16th century and comes to be spelled woofe, wolfe, and, finally, woof.

The changing spelling of woof (and warp) can be seen in three early English translations of Leviticus 39:47-48, a command regarding the disposal of infected clothing.

Here are the verses in the New King James Version (1982):

Also, if a garment has a leprous plague in it, whether it is a woolen garment or a linen garment, whether it is in the warp or woof of linen or wool, whether in leather or in anything made of leather…

Here are the spellings of warp and woof in Wycliffe, Tyndale, and the 1611 KJV:

Wycliffe (1382): “in the oof, or in the werpe.”
Tyndale (1530) “in the warpe or wolfe
King James (1611) “in the warp, or woof”

Because the warp and weft represent the essence of a woven cloth, the expressions “warp and weft” and “warp and woof” came to be used figuratively to refer to anything so closely related as to be inseparable. For example:

The woof of self-interest is so cunningly interwoven with the warp of righteous feeling that very few of us can tell where the threads cross (1882).

The reality is that all of Eastwood’s recent war movies…share the same basically apolitical quality: They’re interested in the warp and woof of war (2015).

Although “warp and weft” is sometimes used figuratively, my informal observations suggest that “warp and weft” is more common in a literal context, whereas “warp and woof” is more common when the expression is being used figuratively. For example:

In these rugs, both the warp and weft are made with silk threads, though it is not known if the silk was Indian or imported from China.

Crepe de Chine is a light and fine plain-woven dress fabric produced either with all-silk warp and weft or else with a silk warp and hard-spun worsted weft. 

I’m on holiday (as they say) in New England, completely removed from the warp and woof of Washington life.

She opposed pretty much the warp and woof of America’s Cold War policies.

The Ngram Viewer indicates that “warp and woof” may be somewhat more common than “warp and weft,” as does the Corpus of Contemporary American Usage (COCA). Google Search, on the other hand, shows nearly twice as many hits for “warp and weft.”

As for which is “preferable,” I suppose it depends upon how knowledgeable the speaker is of the weaving craft. “Warp and woof” may be annoying to speakers who feel that weft is the more precise term, but “warp and woof” is not incorrect.

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