Hwæt, the parking-spaces …

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Reader D.D. writes to ask about a use of the word "what" that he's noticed "on the part of young blacks of Caribbean descent here in NYC":

The word is sort of shrieked, or perhaps yelped, as if a very insistent question… and the final 't' is accentuated (Brit like)… But the meaning is something like "And how!" or "I'll say!" or "Fuckin' A!!"

I've noticed it outside of work this past week–by two strangers in public settings–but this most recent at-work example sticks in my mind:

Yesterday at work a twenty-something Jamaican-born NY'er went out to move his car, as per NYC parking regs. When he came back MUCH LATER someone asked him, "Was it hard to find parking?" His loud reply, "WHAT!!?" (and then he mumbled something about how hard it was…)

D.D.'s question: "I wish I knew how to research (google) such a ubiquitous word as used in this way… Any tips?"

No doubt he'd also be happy to get a well-informed ethnography of this usage.

My own first question is whether this might not be related to the first of the "Exclamatory and allied uses" of what to which the OED devotes several sub-entries:

1. Used to introduce or call attention to a statement: Lo; now; well. Obs.

The most famous example is the opening line of Beowulf:

Hwæt, we Gar-Dena in geardagum, þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon.

Seamus Heaney translates this opening Hwæt as "So", which seems a bit weak:

"So the spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them"

Some alternative translations of this Hwæt are discussed here: "Listen!"; "Hear me!"; "Attend!" And in other varieties of American English, you could certainly answer "Was it hard to find parking" with "Listen, you have no idea, …"

Newer "exclamatory and allied uses" of what include B.2.a., glossed as "an exclamation of surprise or astonishment (sometimes mixed with indignation): usually followed by a question". Leaving out the "followed by a question" part, this might work — one of the OED's examples for this sense is

1810 G. Crabbe Borough xxii. 301   None put the question,—‘Peter, dost thou give The Boy his Food?—What, Man! the Lad must live.’

Another almost-fit to D.D.'s example might be OED B.3., glossed as "Used to hail, summon, or call the attention of a person; also formerly for incitement, or as an expression of excitement or exultation. arch. and dial."

1581 A. Hall tr. Homer Iliad ii. 29   What? courage sirs my felowes al.
a1637 B. Jonson Tale of Tub i. iii. 15 in Wks. (1640) III,   Here they'are both! What Sirs, disputin.
1878 T. Hardy Return of Native II. iii. viii. 227   What, Diggory? You are having a lonely walk.

I found a post from 2009 about Jamaican exclamations, but nothing there about what.

It's worth noting that the interpretation of exclamations often wanders historically in ways that may surprise those who have not followed the journey. Thus the use of "Shut up!" to mean "You don't say!" may be puzzling the first few times you hear it. And for that matter, the interpretation of "You don't say!" as "I find that observation surprising" is itself far from logically transparent.

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52 Comments »

  1. Thor said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    Are you sure they aren't just quoting the rapper Li'l John?

  2. mikemorr said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 8:58 am

    Is this the "What" famously exclaimed by rapper Lil Jon (and parodied by Dave Chappelle)?

    [(myl) If you mean the use of what in this, it seems completely different to me, though also interesting -- Lil Jon's version seems to be short for a confrontational "what you gonna do about it?"]

  3. Durf said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 8:59 am

    In the foreword to Heaney's translation he describes the process by which he came to "So." as a way to approach that opening exclamation, which I thought was quite persuasive. Old family gatherings, conversation in all corners of the room, and an older uncle who can expect to be listened to clears his throat and begins: So. And everyone shuts up for the story.

    It worked for me, given that background.

    [(myl) Here's his explanation, in my edition:

    I've always pictured the relevant bardic context as being more like a room full of off-duty soldiers drinking beer than an "old family gathering".]

  4. Stan said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 9:07 am

    Strikes me as similar to I know, right?, which I sometimes see abbreviated as IKR or just Right?

    I tried to embed this link but it disappeared in the preview: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3057

  5. Dougal Stanton said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 9:08 am

    I remembered Heaney's Beowulf starting with just "So." as a sentence on its own. Does my memory deceive me? I didn't think to bring my copy with me today :-)

    [(myl) You're right:

    ]

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 9:10 am

    @Stan: Apparently links ending in numbers disappear in the preview but work anyway.

  7. Simon Holloway said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 9:10 am

    There are numerous examples of "what" as an exclamation in Shakespeare's plays as well. The one that comes most immediately to mind is in Hamlet III:4, only moments before the prince runs Polonius through with a blade.

  8. Margaret said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 9:11 am

    I always used to get irritated at 'Do hwaet?'

  9. Bob Violence said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 9:16 am

    Here's the relevant portion of Heaney's introduction:

    Conventional renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with "lo" and "hark" and "behold" and "attend" and—more colloquially—"listen" being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle "so" came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom "so" operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, "so" it was…

  10. Stan said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 9:26 am

    @Jerry Friedman Thank you; I'll remember that.

  11. Dan Lufkin said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 9:46 am

    Just imagine for a moment a parking lot operated on spear-Dane principles. Hwæt, indeed.

  12. Robert Coren said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 9:48 am

    Although it's slightly different, I'm a little surprised I'm the first (unless I've read even more carelessly than I think I did) to mention the final interrogative "what" that occurs (does it still?) in British speech, with approximately the same meaning as the French n'est-ce pas. "Nice day today, what?"

  13. Lane said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 10:01 am

    1) I'm glad that I'm not the only crossover Language Log – Lil' Jon fan.

    2) Danes also say "shut up!" ("hold kæft!") at something surprising, but it's not a teen thing – my mother-in-law does it.

  14. Stan said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 10:08 am

    Irish people say "Shut up!" that way too, as well as things like "Would you don't be talkin'!" and "Go away out of that!"

  15. Scott Underwood said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 10:19 am

    A common phrase in the US South (at least in my family) is various versions of "I tell you what." This might precede a whole sentence: "Lemme tell you what — I'm not going back outside today." Or end one: "It is an oven out there, I tell you what." Or just stand alone: "Hot out?" "Tell you what."

  16. Alex said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 10:20 am

    Anecdotally, I have a Trinidadian friend who does this constantly. Long before Li'l John came onto the scene. I think….at least since 1999.

  17. Denis Moskowitz said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 10:26 am

    After reading Heaney's introduction, I've considered "hwaet" to be onomatopoeia for the sound of "obliterat[ing] all previous discourse and narrative". It works well when accompanied with a table-swatting hand gesture.

  18. Andrew W said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 10:40 am

    My (Scottish) mother will say something similar to this: "Was it hard to find parking?" "Oh, what!" — meaning something like what the Caribbean NY expression sounds like ("It was indeed extremely hard to find parking"). I've picked it up from her. Mind you, when she does it it sounds slightly like an affectation or joke — like she's mimicking/parodying the English upper-class "jolly nice day today, what?" that Robert Coren mentions. (They don't quite mean the same thing, though — the upper-class variant is in the OED under A.I.4.c described as an "interrogative expletive" — and my mum would never actually say anything like "nice day today, what?", so maybe the "very much so!" 'what' is genuinely in her dialect; I'll have to ask her.)

  19. John said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 10:44 am

    Something like what's described is used in the TV show Psych all the time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nf3FHCB9hiY

  20. Mary Bull said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 11:25 am

    @Scott Underwood
    Yes, "I tell you what, it's hot out!" and similar sentences with "tell you what" were frequently used in my family and also among my peers when I was growing up in South Texas, and I would also hear it rather often in Kentucky and Tennessee during the 55 or so years I've lived in those two states (Tennessee at least counts as Southern, I think). But I haven't noticed the expression in recent years — though it's so familiar that it might run right by me unnoticed. Also the word "what," in the sense discussed by some others here, including MYL, would introduce a surprised query. "What, gravy and no rice?" for example.

  21. Steve F said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    @ Robert Coren
    The Bertie Woosterish end-of-sentence interrogative 'what?' is definitely on its way out in British English. If it is still used at all outside PG Wodehouse and parodies of upper class twittery, it is vanishingly rare these days.

  22. KevinM said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 11:40 am

    Lil John, as in "can I get a Hwæt Hwæt"?

    @Robert, "the final interrogative "what" that occurs (does it still?) in British speech" I, for one, associate it with Bertie Wooster. And is it distinct from "wot"? Given the etymology, I always took it to function more or less as "y'know."

  23. George Walkden said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

    There's actually surprisingly little evidence for the use of hwæt as a call to attention, despite the iconic status it's gained as the first word of Beowulf. LL readers may be interested in this paper:

    http://www.isle-linguistics.org/resources/walkden2011.pdf

    in which I reassess the evidence for the 'interjection' view of hwæt, and present a rather different analysis of the word.

  24. mollymooly said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

    Similar to Andrew W's Scottish mother above are those Irish people for whom the response to "was it hard to find parking?" might be "was it what!". The English equivalent is "was it ever!"

    I guess "was it what!" was originally "was it what?!" [i.e. "how could you even ask?!"] but prosodically it's no longer a question, even rhetorical.

    Possible example from Finnegans Wake:

    Did ye save any tin? says he. Did I what? with a grin says she.

  25. Lane said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

    The Lil Jon link got me noticing something else, which I posted on here.

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2012/06/syntax

  26. Aelfric said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 1:49 pm

    Mr. Walkden, as a lover of all things Anglo-Saxon (especially saints and occupations requiring micel gedeorf), discovering your paper is the msot exciting thing that has happened to me today. Thank you!

  27. Victoria Simmons said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

    I can't believe no one has noted the British comedy tradition, especially found in the likes of Monty Python and Douglas Adams, of using "What!?" as an exclamation, meaning not "What did you just say?", but "I can't believe this is happening!" Preferably in slightly stunned, slightly outraged accents. I seem to recall an example from John Cleese in a "A Fish Called Wanda" that went on for several What!?s. (That was very hard to punctuate.) This use would seem to go with the examples of parking traumas, as shorthand for "I can't believe you even asked me that, of course it was hard to find parking!"

    There's also the clipped, falling-pitch "What" that people use when someone is looking at them in a way they find significant or threatening, and which seems to be short for "What's your issue!?" It goes at least as far back as the daughter at the end of "Patriot Games" (1992), when she comes into the kitchen to find her parents about to share with her the news that Mom is pregnant, and is also heard from Parker Posey in the elevator scene in "You've Got Mail."

    Note also the use of "what" as an exclamation here a few weeks ago: "Is this a great photo, or what!"
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3965

  28. Faith said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

    Why is "parking-spaces" hyphenated?

    [(myl) Why is "spear-Danes" hyphenated?]

  29. Lil Jon, grammaticaliser | The Fiasco said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

    [...] Jon, grammaticaliser 0 Comments/ in Featured, Music / by Salil June 14, 2012 THE comments on this post on Language Log got me thinking about Lil Jon, an American hip-hop producer and [...]

  30. Theophylact said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

    "Wait, what?" is almost a generic internet double-take.

  31. AntC said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

    @ Dougal Stanton "So." as a sentence on its own.

    Thank you. In that case, the punctuation made a huge difference.

    I can imagine the speaker pausing for a long draw of his ale; the room quietening down; people nudging each other that this is going to be good; as the greybeard begins his tale.

    Without the full stop (as I first read myl's post), it seemed just a run-on; as if we've come in on the middle of the conversation.

  32. AntC said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

    @ Victoria Simmons the British comedy tradition

    The three quickly-repeated what!?'s (with rising tone) from Neddy Seagoon in many, many Goon shows.

    (Usuall followed by Moriarty's counterpoint "Precisely, Neddy.")

  33. Gav said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 4:52 pm

    What ho cheps still around, believe you me what.

  34. ohwilleke said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 8:17 pm

    I'm rather interested in a somewhat similar question. How do you research a poetic device that you've observed, but never seen given an assigned name that you've heard of.

    For example, who do you learn if anyone else has discussed the poetic device that I call "tag words" in rap lyrics, where a line is concluded with another single word that captures or plays on the essence of the previous line – which is really quite a formalistic kind of poetic structure.

    In a similar vein, where would you go to determine if anyone had every made a map showing the frequency of indigeneous toponymns in the Americas? It would be a crying shame to devote a lot of energy to a project like that only to discover that its already been done, but its another kind of concept that doesn't index well.

  35. Marion Crane said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 1:54 am

    @ John: Oh, good, I thought I was the only one who recognized the Psych-what in this description!

  36. Adam said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 4:21 am

    I see someone has already mentioned Wodehouse, but initial "Hwæt" reminds me (perversely) of "What ho!".

  37. Jon Hanna said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 5:11 am

    As a fellow Ulsterman, Heaney's "So" seemed pretty sensible to me.

    I prefer "Whisht", as it has (to me at least) the correct meaning, and one could almost believe it was cognate (though I understand it is not). But while to my upbringing it is perfect, I found that others understood it as only having a much quieter nuance (and didn't believe it could be used forcefully until I directed them to "The Playboy of the Western World".

  38. George Walkden said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 6:05 am

    @Adam: "What ho!" is actually how Earle translates hwæt in his 1892 translation 'The Deeds of Beowulf'. :D

    Though, to reiterate my earlier point, there's no evidence that hwæt really was used forcefully, or as an independent exclamation.

  39. Canadian, eh? said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 6:19 am

    By the way, it's "Fuckin' eh!" not "Fuckin' A!", what?

  40. Brian T said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 7:24 am

    "You don't say" and "Shut up!" might seem like puzzling ways to express "I find that observation surprising," but they're pretty close to each other's literal meaning (especially when one is repunctuated as "You! Don't say!" to add imperative imperiousness).

  41. Adam said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 9:26 am

    @George Walkden: Thanks, that's great!

  42. Robert Coren said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 9:32 am

    KevinM: Not just Bertie Wooster, but also Lord Peter Wimsey (same general idea, linguistically speaking). it's also a kind of signature of the character of King Pellinore in T. H. White's The Once and Future King. I'm pretty sure "wot?" is the same thing, with the spelling suggesting a working-class accent (actual or put-on) that lacks the /hw/ of RP.

  43. KevinM said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 9:47 am

    @Robert: Not to mention the King in "The Madness of King George"
    A character marks George's (temporary) recovery of his reason and his spirits by saying. "It's back! the what what, the hey hey!"

  44. LDavidH said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

    As for the Wooster/Wimsey "what" ending, it's still current in Swedish: a short "va" (everyday pronunciation of "vad", otherwise pronounced "vard" and meaning "what") at the end of a sentence functions like "eh", assuming you will agree: "vackert väder, va?" (Nice weather, eh?)

  45. Ted said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

    Based on my limited experience with BrE, the Wodehovian sentence-ending exclamatory rhetorical "what?" seems to have evolved, if that is the word, into "innit."

  46. Circe said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 2:45 pm

    Theophylact:

    "Wait, what?" is almost a generic internet double-take

    .

    I remember overhearing the following conversation between a TA (from Hong Kong) and a student (probably a native American English speaker). The context was that the TA had just communicated to the student that the professor (and the TAs too), suspected him of cheating on the homeworks:

    Student: "Wait, what?"

    TA: "Pardon me?"
    Student (in precisely the same intonation as before): "Wait, what?"

  47. J Lee said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

    in hawaii extended eye contact with a stranger will elicit without fail a scowling "what" with a head nod to which the looker generally must respond identically until they are close enough to shove and enagage in battle.

    thus a tourist who makes the mistake of maintaining incidental eye contact will respond genuinely, probably with the other falling-tone 'what?' (used to respond to "Well!?"), and since that what IS interrogative and not aggressive the local will say 'asrait' (that's right [bitch]) and continue on his way satisfied, the tourist utterly bewildered.

    try it yourself on your next vacation! all you need is a keen ear, a functioning eye and medical insurance.

  48. svanduym said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 10:25 am

    What John said, about the show Psych. There it seems to me to be an expression of self-satisfaction, kind of like "wow, we're so awesome" (usually used by the two main characters simultaneously).

  49. Jon Weinberg said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

    Conversation today with my 18-year-old (Michigan):
    me: [cautionary tale about a person who did the thing I'm warning against, and suffered for it]
    him: But she's OK now?
    me: Yes.
    him: What!
    The intended meaning appears to have been some version of "A-ha!" or "So there!" He's watched Psych, but I haven't, so I don't know if this is the Psych "what" or not.

  50. Steve Tauber said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 3:10 am

    In gamer culture, there is a term "wat" which rhymes with hat. It is a mutation of what and used to express surpising acceptance or irony.

  51. Ken Brown said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 10:01 am

    Victoria Simmons said: "I can't believe no one has noted the British comedy tradition, especially found in the likes of Monty Python and Douglas Adams, of using "What!?" as an exclamation, meaning not "What did you just say?", but "I can't believe this is happening!""

    Not a comedy tradition, a normal part of the language. "what!" as an exclamation is current and common. (metaphorically so when spelled "wot" – even though almost everyone says it that way, including RP speakers)

    KevinM said: "@Robert, "the final interrogative "what" that occurs (does it still?) in British speech" I, for one, associate it with Bertie Wooster."

    As others have said "what?" as a tag question is almost obsolete other than as a parody. Its different from the Chad-cartoon "wot, no bananas?" kind of "what".

  52. Matt Werner said,

    August 14, 2012 @ 1:18 am

    Interesting discussion! It inspired me to write a post comparing Lil B's repetition of the word "swag" to Gertrude Stein's repetition in "If I Had Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso": http://djmattwerner.blogspot.com/2012/08/is-lil-b-oaklands-new-gertrude-stein.html

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