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.