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Saturday, October 5, 2019

What Does “FWIW” Mean, and How Do You Use It?

A couple of friends talking with the word FWIW superimposed over them.
fizkes/Shutterstock

While FWIW isn’t the most popular piece of slang on the internet, it routinely finds its way into Twitter posts, message boards, and chat rooms. But what does FWIW mean, where’d it come from, and how do you use it?

For What It’s Worth

FWIW means “for what it’s worth.” It’s an idiom that rarely carries any literal meaning, and it’s used to politely express that someone should consider an opinion, idea, or fact (usually because their opinion is flawed).

If it helps, imagine that FWIW means, “You can ignore what I’m going to say, but I think you should hear it anyway.” The phrase doesn’t really change the overall meaning of your sentence, it just adds a polite tone to what you’re saying.

So instead of telling a friend, “You have no idea what you’re talking about, 4K TVs have four times the pixel resolution of HD TVs,” you could just say, “FWIW, 4K TVs have four times the pixel resolution of HD TVs.”

Interestingly, FWIW can also be used to inject a snarky, empathetic, or even dismissive tone in your sentence. These tones mostly come from context, but as a general rule, any use of “FWIW” that can be replaced with “FYI” has a snarky tone. (“FWIW, toothpaste kills bad breath germs.”)

It’s worth noting that FWIW is usually (but not always) used at the beginning of a sentence. This is called a prepositional phrase, and it’s used to tell readers you’re about to politely contradict (or confirm) somebody else’s opinion.

FWIW Has Been Around for Ages

As an idiom, “for what it’s worth” has been around since at least the 1800s. The phrase actually has its origins in economics, and it was initially used to express the literal value of products, goods, or people. A 1600s farmer might pledge he’ll only buy a horse “for what it’s worth,” while a tax collector might try to “rob you for all you’re worth.”

There was a time when this economic meaning overlapped with our modern meaning. You can see this overlap in stories like The Merchant Service (1844), where one character tells another, “Your opinion goes for what it’s worth—nothing.” (The characters in this play are merchants, and the author is using “for what it’s worth” as a pun.)

A screenshot of the Google Trends interest in FWIW page.
According to Google Trends, interest in FWIW has steadily increased since 2004. Google Trends

But this “economic” subtext has mostly faded away. Now, “for what it’s worth” is just an empty idiom. It doesn’t actually add much meaning to a sentence, it just makes you sound polite when you’re correcting someone. Knowing this, it’s no surprise the phrase has shortened into FWIW. Nobody wants to type out “for what it’s worth” just to be polite.

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