It is one of the most common sarcastic responses to weird, exaggerated, and impossible news stories. Its use as a combination exclamation-caveat makes for such comedic gold that many journalists deploy it whenever an outrageous story appears on their timeline.

It is “Whoa, if true,” and this is the story of how it began and what its place in our digital lexicon means today.

The first tweet to ever feature the phrase “whoa if true,” according to the social search service Topsy, was posted by Lawrence Liu on May 28, 2008.

Liu’s tweet unwittingly encapsulated the humor that has since come to define “Whoa, if true.” Liu heard a rumor about MTV buying Twitter, a story that of course turned out to be false. His reaction to this rumor was twofold: “Whoa!” and “Double whoa if true!” Without seeing any evidence of the acquisition, he was flabbergasted by MTV’s move and all of its implications. If the story turned out to be true, well, that would be even more astounding. Liu was essentially admitting that the mere report of MTV buying Twitter was “whoa”-worthy; confirmation of the acquisition would earn the story an extra “whoa.”

For several years after Liu’s tweet, the phrase “Whoa, if true” and its variants continued to appear in tweets expressing conditional but still premature emotional reactions.

“‘Whoa if true’ has become a big joke for me,” says Business Insider politics reporter Brett LoGiurato, “but the circumstances surrounding its origin say a lot about our online discourse and reporting in the age of Twitter. There’s a rapid desire to express shock, outrage, or both at a particular piece of news.”

“To use a recent example,” LoGiurato says, “think of the MH17 day, when new reports seemed to come out every other second. It was extremely troubling that with each new seemingly startling detail—some of which ended up false—many people, some of whom were very respected journalists, would manually retweet the information with a little comment that went, ‘Whoa if true,’ ‘Wow, if true,’ or some variation. The MH17 detail that the plane was carrying 100 AIDS researchers—how many ‘Whoa if true’ manual retweets were there? How many of those same people subsequently clarified and caveated those tweets?” 

Twitter users found myriad uses for the “Whoa, if true” family of phrases in the first seven years of the site’s existence. But it wasn’t until August 2013 that the “if true” meme really took off and acquired its current connotation. Ironically, the person who defined the modern “if true” meme did so by using the phrase in exactly the same uncritically enthusiastic way as Lawrence Liu did back in May 2008.

New York magazine’s Stefan Becket directed us to a New York Post story by writer Michael Goodwin from Aug. 7, 2013. At the very end of the story, under the headline “Rumor mill crankin’ on Eliot mess,” Goodwin lets rip a stunning example of journalism:

“Reader Don Reed has a scoop, if true. ‘People are going nuts trying to smoke out the identity of Eliot Spitzer’s clandestine girlfriend,’ he writes. ‘I think it’s Huma.’”

Goodwin’s decision to convert an imaginative reader’s idle commentary into a bona fide “scoop, if true” earned him a fair amount of ridicule.

“If true, indeed!” wrote Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke in the New York Observer.

“Well, if Reader Don thinks it ... it might be true!” mused New York’s Joe Coscarelli. “In which case, boom, exclusive.”

And thus a meme was born. “Scoop, if true” turned into “Whoa, if true” and “Big, if true,” which is now an omnipresent response to, and commentary on, outlandish stories.

As these tweets indicate, the genius of this simultaneously simple and profound phrase comes from its naked embrace of the fact that some stories are too good to verify and must be shared as soon as possible. Saying “Whoa, if true” is the microblogging-friendly, character-conserving equivalent of saying, “This would certainly be something if it were true, but it’s totally false.” 

Given the torrent of downright unbelievable stories that stream across Twitter on a daily (nay, hourly) basis, it’s no surprise that “Whoa, if true” gets trotted out all the time and for all manner of stories.

Dave Weigel’s last tweet reveals the profundity of the three-word phrase. “Whoa if true” urges us to ask ourselves, who cares if a claim is accurate, as long as it’s provocative?

“I like to think that by making ‘Whoa if true’ something of a joke, I’m helping the problem, little by little,” says LoGiurato. “Plus, I just like to be funny sometimes.”

In chiding outlandish claims, “Whoa, if true” recalls Stephen Colbert’s most important contribution to our national discourse: truthiness. Colbert has famously used this concept to mock conservative pundits who make impassioned but factually inaccurate pleas on Fox News, the idea being that, for these professional talking heads, provocative stories are too important to be sidetracked by the truth. In much the same way as Colbert’s TV persona argues that stories need only “feel true in here” while pointing to his heart, “Whoa, if true” has become a convenient shorthand for mocking both truthiness and rushes to judgment.

And it all started with a tweet about a Twitter takeover that never happened.

Photo via carbonnyc/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)