“Ope” is a mysterious noise that has no concrete definition, but you’ve likely had the displeasure of hearing it when accidentally bumping into someone or otherwise experiencing surprise.
It sounds like “oh” combined with a “p.” It’s plaguing our offices and our streets, and it can’t be stopped or even, apparently, understood.
This involuntary utterance has made me feel like a good-for-nothing broken robot that can’t form sentences properly. As I imagine I’m not the only one who is becoming hopeless of being ope-less, I set out to figure out the origins of “ope.”
The horror all started for me during an interview I did in September with “The Late Show” band leader Jon Batiste. The musician said what should have been an innocuous phrase, one that has now affected my daily life for months.
“You open the box and ― ope ― there it is,” Batiste told me of his immediate chemistry with host Stephen Colbert. “I love that, I love that.”
As fond as I am of the undeniable onscreen comedic sparks between Batiste and Colbert, I do not love that it was described as “ope ― there it is.” He didn’t say, “whoomp, there it is,” quoting Tag Team. It was “ope.” And as I have come to discover, that “word” has clawed into our daily lives without any explanation. For me, it’s easily one of the most popular sounds I make everyday.
When I accidentally step in somebody’s way ― “Ope. My bad.”
When someone unexpectedly opens a door for me ― “Ope. Thank you.”
When, like Batiste, I know I need to say a sound to convey the quality of something but an actual word doesn’t seem to fit ― “Ope. Here we go.”
Really, whenever I am slightly startled but feel the need to say something ― “Ope. Yeah.”
If a burglar broke into my apartment and I turned around a corner just as the other person was turning around that same corner from the opposite direction so that we both met in this awkward, surprised middle and then I realized the person was stealing my few possessions ― “Ope. Nope!”
“It clearly shares a resemblance with ‘oops.'”- Linguist Ben Zimmer
This is likely already relatable to you, but if it isn’t, now that it’s been pointed out, you’ll almost certainly start noticing your co-workers, friends and lovers using this phrase. Not only does it serve as a surprise sound, it also wedges its way into conversation as a placeholder for dramatic effect, as Batiste unconsciously did.
“Ope” has essentially earned multiple meanings while still remaining entirely undefined. Still, a few people have tried to make some sense of it. BuzzFeed UK claimed it to be a “noise that all Brits make in awkward situations,” in a video that got nearly 2 million views on YouTube. An Urban Dictionary entry called it an American Midwest thing. On Reddit, users across the world claimed they made the noise. As Dante finally entered the center of hell in “Inferno,” he heard a horrible sound of teeth gnashing and lost souls uttering “ope” as he awkwardly wove around them to say hello to Satan. That last one is made up, but seems like it could be legit.
There really seems to be no geographical or generational bounds to “ope.” In a wholly separate article by BuzzFeed, the publication claimed it seemed to be a Michigan habit.
This probable devil sound is likely a global phenomenon. It’s at least ubiquitous enough for a “Family Guy” joke to be entirely centered on the character Stewie stepping in front of the character Brian and repeatedly saying “ope” when they almost collide.
“It clearly shares a resemblance with ‘oops’ (and in fact is sometimes spelled ‘oop’),” linguist Ben Zimmer explained to me, offering some clarity. “But when it’s said as ‘ope,’ it could also be thought of as the ‘oh’ interjection plus a final ‘-p,’ the same kind of ‘-p’ that we hear at the end of ‘yep,’ ‘nope,’ and ‘welp.’”
With all those similarities, this has become a catch-all of sorts, perhaps serving for moments that fall between the serious-level of the other words and noises. “I say ‘oops’ if I spill coffee without causing a lot of trouble, but probably ‘shit’ if it’s serious enough that I have to change my blouse,” University of North Carolina professor Connie C. Eble further explained of the varying levels these noises can come from. She hadn’t heard of “oop” or “ope,” though, and made the mistake of thanking me for bringing it to her attention.
Unfortunately, all the linguists I spoke to had only guesses into the true meaning or origin of “ope.”
“Interjections and ejaculations are particularly difficult to source, so I would be extremely surprised if there were a verified definitive answer.”- Lexicographer Grant Barrett
“Ha! Guesses are all I have, too,” lexicographer Grant Barrett wrote in an email before continuing even more discouragingly, “Interjections and ejaculations are particularly difficult to source, so I would be extremely surprised if there were a verified definitive answer.”
Still determined to get to the bottom of this “ejaculation,” I pressed on fruitlessly.
I got on the phone with Indiana University professor Michael Adams, but he also didn’t have the answer.
“I just felt sorry for you,” Adams told me. “Because trying to figure out the etymology of it, all you’ve really got to go on is just the speculation. I see why you were scratching your forehead about this one and if you went off to look in dictionaries you wouldn’t find any useful information about it, but that’s usually a sign that there is no useful information.”
And so my life remains doomed as I’m cursed to wander the streets, never knowing when I’ll accidentally bump into someone and utter a nonsense syllable for which there is “no useful information.”
I do not understand why I do this and may never figure that out. All I can say is that if this ends up wrecking your life as well, I can promise if you ever run into me in real life, I’ll be sure to say, “Ope, sorry.”
Update 11/15/18: As today marks the one year anniversary of this article, I figured I’d add a progress update on whether I still say “ope.” I do and I still hate myself for it every time. For quite awhile after writing this, I would try to catch myself from doing it, but then I just gave up. I clearly have “ope” in my DNA and I’m not winning this battle.