Wait, what?

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Today's Get Fuzzy (click on the image for a larger version):

My immediate reaction was that "Wait, what?" is an idiom characteristic of American youth — 20-somethings and teenagers.

Now, this may well be an instance of the frequency and recency illusions. After all, the meaning of "wait, what?" — its allegedly youthful connotation aside –  is entirely compositional. If anything has really changed, it can only how often this option is chosen as a way to express confused surprise. I'm sure that I've heard and said "wait, what?" many times in my life, and it won't surprise me to find examples going back to Old English instances of "gebide, hwæt ?"

Still, I think that something has changed, even if the only evidence that I have to offer is the fact that according to the comics search engine at ohnorobot.com, Randall Munroe's xkcd has five examples (out of 578 strips in his oeuvre, though not all may be indexed yet) that use "wait, what?" Does this mean anything? Not really, though I'll assert (without proof) that the frequency of this locution would be significantly lower in Pogo or Charlie Brown, or for that matter Doonesbury.

Anyhow, FWIW, here are the five strips (click on the images for larger versions):

Man: So does the carpet match the drapes?
Woman: Yes but not the upholstery.
[[Woman walks away]]
[[Man looks confused]]
{{title text: Wait, What?}}

[[Two programmers, one with a black hat and one without a hat, are sitting back to back at two separate desks, typing.]]
No-Hat Programmer: Man, you're being inconsistent with your array indices. Some are from one, some are from zero.
Black-Hat Programmer: Different tasks call for different conventions. To quote Stanford algorithm's expert Donald Knuth, "Who are you? How did you get in my house?"
No-Hat Programmer: Wait, what?
Black-Hat Programmer: Well, that's what he said when I asked him about it.
{{title text: His books were kinda intimidating; rappelling down through his skylight seemed like the best option.}}

My Hobby: Renting an SUV and confusing the hell out of hybrid owners
[[A man is pumping gas into a Prius at a gas station. The prices can be seen in the background, and read:]]
/ $4.08 / M: $4.38 / P: $4.51 / D: $4.85 /
[[Another man drives up alongside in an SUV and leans out the window]]
SUV Driver: Check out those prices! Your Prius ain't looking so smart now, huh?
Prius Driver: It's … wait, what?
SUV Driver: Maybe you'll go green next time, asshole!
{{ Title text: Electric skateboards, by cost, get the equivalent of about 300 miles per gallon. Lithium batteries just need to get cheaper. }}

[[Two guys stand next to each other talking]]
A: I just feel like somewhere out there is the girl for me.
B: Yeah.
A: Someone loving and caring.
B: I know what you mean.
A: A girl whose only mode of transportation is the M.C. Hammer Slide.
B: Yeah.
B: …Wait, what?
[[A girl hammer-slides past]]
[[A sees girl hammer slide and it's love at first sight]]
[[Girl hammer slides over into A's waiting arms]]
{{title text: Once, long ago, I saw this girl go by. I didn't stop and talk to her, and I've regretted it ever since.}}


A guide to understanding flow charts / presented in flow chart form.

Some of the other comic-strip "wait, what?" hits from ohnorobot include
, http://www.starslip.com/archive/20050919.shtml,
, http://homebodiescomic.com/25_tom.html,




  1. Sili said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

    Nice to see OhNoRobot (and Starslip*) here.

    For what it's worth, I want to use "gebide, hwæt ?" now – any it'll prolly show up in xkcd or Dinosaur Comics before long after this.

    *hmm – Starslip takes place in the far future so by then it can't be recent. (But the strip lampoons present day popculture, so the young author must think of it as pretty recent, too.)

    A couple of variants from Sheldon.

  2. Bryn LaFollette said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

    While I too, impressionistically, have a sense that the increased use of this phrase is something that has become more frequently used of late, I don't think there's really some age bracket this is restricted to. Or at least, it's not something restricted to those 20-something and younger, as this certainly doesn't describe my social circle in which this phrase's use is pretty commonplace. I feel instead like the increased frequency might, however, be popularized by a certain style of humor which is typified by the likes of Judd Apatow, Wes Anderson, the contributors to Funny or Die, and also I'd say (though this is purely from memory) Arrested Development. It's appearance in the strips above is just more support for this sort of distribution based on a particular style of humor, I think.

  3. Matthew Kehrt said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

    I agree with Bryn LaFollette. I say this all the time, but I think it is generally for humorous effect. "Wait, what?" seems to me to be very much the direct verbal analogue of an exaggerated double take.

  4. Matthew Kehrt said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

    For what it's worth, by the way, I am a twenty-something, and I read Dinosaur Comic and xkcd religiously, so my observations my be skewed.

  5. Brandon said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

    It never occurred to me that this might be a phrasing that hasn't just been around forever and used consistently. Then again at 20-something myself, I might lack the historical context.

  6. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

    Couldn't it have been clipped out of longer versions, with full questions, that would have been more common previously?

  7. Seth Dove said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

    This is definitely a phrase that is popular right now to express surprise in a humorous way. However, I almost only come across it online. It's like *saying* 'LOL'. If you spend much time on Reddit you'll see this all the time.

  8. Mark P said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 9:41 pm

    I have seen several instances along the lines of " … but wait. What is …"

  9. Daniel Barkalow said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 11:14 pm

    I think there's always been a usage in the case where the user genuinely needs clarification, and this was entirely compositional. But there's a different usage where the user means to call attention to a statement which was nonsense, but delivered as if it made sense. In the late 90s, I knew someone, then around 20, who frequently used it to mark the things she herself had just said. That is, when she was just joking about something, she'd say it with a completely straight face, and then immediately say, "Wait, what?" (before anyone could respond).

  10. dr pepper said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 12:18 am

    Today's Dork Tower has "Who said what now?"


  11. T.I. said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 2:54 am

    As far as I can remember, this was one of the earliest LOLcat images:

    That picture maybe changes the connotation of the phrase a bit, and associates it with the stereotypical cannabis users, who (again, stereotypically) are usually rather slow to react to speech and actions. I'm sure you've all seen movies featuring a scene where a fight or some other action scene takes place, and somewhere near is some dude, high from cannabis, who can't grasp what's going on, and just stares and grins, and when everything is long over, he says "Dude… wait, what?".

    Not to mention the stoner flicks (e.g. "Dude, Where's My Car", or Jay and Silent Bob movies, or "Dazed and Confused" – especially the character named Slater from the latter), which have created the stereotype of the hilariously high cannabis user who would use such a phrase. So maybe the use of this phrase among the mainstream, non-cannabis using younger crowd first partly started as a parodying reference to the potheads. See also: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StonersAreFunny

    I'm not at all an expert of this subculture nor on media images though, just an association I instantly thought of.

    P.S. Urban Dictionary (urbandictionary.com) doesn't have an elaborate entry on any variation of this phrase. This is interesting to me because it normally has much longer entries on the phrases that are seen to belong to the current (online) youth culture.

    P.P.S. I've read xkcd for years and I didn't know that the mouseover "title text" even exists. :( Guess I gotta go re-read them all again.

  12. Adrian Mander said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 3:28 am

    I'm pretty sure this phrase was used a few years back on an episode of South Park. If I remember correctly, it was spoken a number of times by a confused and disorganized cop character. This may be the origin of its current status as a pop culture catchphrase. I'll see if I can find video of the episode.

  13. Adrian Mander said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

    Got it. It's a perpetually disoriented shopping mall manager, in season 4, episode 9 (2000), the episode where Cartman forms a boy band. Unfortunately he just says "…What?", which apparently disconfirms my theory. It's just over halfway through this clip.


  14. Luke said,

    May 7, 2009 @ 8:02 am

    Dude… Wait, what?

  15. Russell said,

    May 7, 2009 @ 10:06 am

    "Wait, what," may be compositional, but the interpretation of "what" (in this phrase and in a simple "what?") is something that is subject to change. It has a range of meanings in English, including notably "what did you say," "what did you mean," "what is going on here?" (as when in fictive dialogue with a malfunctioning machine), etc., a range one does not find cross-linguistically.

    This is just to say that this use of "wait what" might only go back only as far as "what" supported these interpretations.

  16. Mathew Wilder said,

    May 7, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

    Dude, yeah you have to re-read xkcd. The mouse over text is often the funniest part!

  17. Halma said,

    April 12, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    I somehow found this page some weeks ago (probably via XKCD), and immediately thought of it when I encountered the phrase "wait..what?" in the 2004 movie Eurotrip (see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0356150/)

  18. Keith Thompson said,

    May 8, 2010 @ 3:54 am

    Thanks for the explanation. As an 'over 40' american living abroad, I come back to the States from time to time, and don't have a clue what jibberish is being said. I understand the words, but the meanings of the phrases spoken by young americans just don't have any intelligent definition.

    …Wait, what???

  19. pedro said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 10:55 am

    Stoners may be prone to attention disorder, but it's a vast collection of distracted phone/laptop/video game/tablet/tv users who suffer from this malady. "Wait. What?" is a reflection of massive stimuli in the environment. It DID NOT EXIST (as a common expression of dismay) until we started using technology to our detriment.

  20. carp said,

    February 24, 2014 @ 11:39 pm

    @pedro: Should we disrespectful youngins get off your lawn while we're at it? The concern you've oh-so-elegantly expressed is proved specious by its millennia-long history.

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