For today’s Word Nerd topic, we’ll look at a word we swiped from another language and have since abused mercilessly, including a whole lot of attempts at what the academics call “invented spelling.”
Voila: An interjection used to call attention to something that is presented or express satisfaction with something that has been accomplished.
Viola: A stringed musical instrument a little larger than a violin.
Viola is pronounced like violin or violet, “Vie-oh-lah,” while the French expression voila is pronounced “vwah-lah.” The v sound is very slight, often overlooked entirely, which leads to the horrifying sight of people on Facebook or Twitter spelling it as “walla,” “wallah,” “wa-la,” “wah-la” and every other possible way you can imagine, along with the common transposition of the vowels, “viola.” (Seriously, if you don’t know a word, don’t try to use it until after you look it up.)
Voila came to the English language from French, first used in the 1700s. In French, voi means “see”; it’s the second-person singular imperative of voir to see, which means it’s a command. Added on it it is la, meaning “there.” Voila literally translates to “see there,” which in English would be more often expressed as “look at that!”
Viola, the name for an alto or tenor violin, was borrowed in the 1790s from Italian viola, which comes from the Medieval Latin vitula “stringed instrument.” This is perhaps from Vitula, Roman goddess of joy (her name was also corrupted into the word fiddle), or from the related Latin verb vitulari “to be joyful.” The viola has a deeper sound than the violin.
Viola is also a woman’s name, derived from violet, a type of flower. Violet also comes from the Latin viola, because of the association with joy.