Annals of "What!!??"

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D.D., who previously contributed some observations on Caribbean "What!!??", sends more:

After a general staff meeting concluded this a.m. at work, I was sitting with a few co-workers and for some reason the conversation turned to 'strange critters' that people of different cultures eat. ('Koreans eat dogs'… 'Some Africans & Chinese eat insects'… etc etc.)

Our workplace is currently being painted/renovated by 3 Caribbean men who have been there for a week or so–one of whom I've had a couple of chats & shared a few jokes with in passing.  Hearing our conversation, that one man (from St. Vincent) stepped away from his painting on the other side of the conference room and addressed me, "Did you ever eat POSSUM?"

I laughed aloud, wondering if he was serious. He seemed to be, so I asked, "Uh… is it good?"  His loud reply, "WHAT!!??" (Read: 'OMG it is friggin' delicious!')

I then told to him that that seemed to me a bit like eating raccoon–which I said I wouldn't want to do because they're scavengers and will eat most any rubbish.

Then the Jamaican man said, "You know if there is a dead human body laying about, a pig will eat it?"

So (knowing that a number of my black co-workers, including Caribbean ones, won't touch pork) I asked him, "Do you like pork?"

His face lit up and he exclaimed, "WHAT!!??"… Then he launched into a rant about all the different kinds of 'dead pig' he enjoys: 'Bacon, ham, and especially a thick, white pork chop…'

As I noted in the earlier post, it's common for exclamations to become enough shifted or specialized from their literal meaning that outsiders easily misinterpret them. One that I've often noticed over the past few years is "Shut up!!", exclaimed with a wide pitch-range fall or fall-rise on up, used to mean something like "Wow!" The drift was especially plain in an exchange that I overheard on the street the other day, where the command to "shut up" was immediately followed by an invitation to say more:

A: …and then *she* said "No thanks!"
B: Shut up!! So what did you do?


  1. Lynne MiMo said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 6:52 am

    Tweet from musician-activist Tom Morello: "Sir Paul McCartney/The Nightwatchman backstage at Hyde Park. What!!" (@tmorello, 14 July 2012)

  2. Adam said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 7:56 am

    Apparently the ability to eat anything makes pigs awesome.

  3. David said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 8:26 am

    Continuing the Caribbean theme–I can't imagine a creature better described as a "scavenger who will eat most any rubbish" than a lobster. Just sayin'.

  4. edithcuth said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 8:38 am

    I get a lot of stick from my friends because lately I've taken to saying loudly "NO!" with a long O (meaning No way! Really? That's awesome!) after a positive statement. Something like "My German shepherd just had puppies, they're so cute!" – "Nooo!"

  5. Mar Rojo said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 10:06 am

    You've not met my Aunt Ida, David.

  6. Jim said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

    "I then told to him that that seemed to me a bit like eating raccoon–which I said I wouldn't want to do because they're scavengers and will eat most any rubbish. '

    First off, possums are not exactly scavengers. They forage.

    Second, raccoons are good enough to eat that Teddy Roosevelt had one for Christmams dinner while he was in the White House. It was a gift.

    Third, the observation about scavenging not harming the taste of pork is obviously true, whether it's regular pig or long pig. (Humans have really acid stomachs, especially compared to other anthropoids, because we evolved our tatse for meat as scavengers. A highly acid stomach defeats a lot of pathogens. E. coli has become a threat only recently because some strains have evolved in CAFOs that tolerate the high acidity of feedlot cattle's stomachs.) It's also true of tilapia, Dungeness crab and a whole range of delicious species.

  7. Wyatt Allen said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

    I always associated the "Shut Up!" exclamation with Elaine Bennis from Seinfeld. I never considered that it might have been preexisting…

  8. The Ridger said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

    Possum is greasy and best cooked in the ground over coals. I have not eaten raccoon.

  9. norima said,

    July 21, 2012 @ 10:52 am

    I used to have a friend (mid-20s, born and bred in Victoria, Australia) who said "Get out of here!" in the same vein. It honestly took me a while to get used to.

  10. Peter T said,

    July 22, 2012 @ 3:54 am

    Can't say NZ possums are a gourmet's delight, and I would not eat the single mother brushtail that lives in our yard.

  11. Bloix said,

    July 24, 2012 @ 10:57 pm

    Also just "get out!" Heard in Philadelphia.

  12. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

    […] Pullum wondered why people were fiddling with spelling shibboleths, and Mark Liberman looked at the Caribbean “What??!!” and the zombie nouns of Helen Sword’s piece in The New York […]

  13. Peter Meilstrup said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

    This Fry and Laurie sketch features a "what" followed by "shut up" and goes a good bit further in that vein:

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