Tag Archives: language

An Analysis of “What, What”

Originally posted to Blogspot on:

February 5, 2014

Imagine this scenario: I log into Facebook to check the latest news feed. One of my friends has just posted a picture of himself sipping Mai Tais on a South Pacific beach with rock stars on one hand and supermodels on the other. The picture is not Photoshopped. I want to believe it’s real, but I can’t. It’s too much to take in. I don’t know what to say if it’s true. The latest phrase craze for 2014 helps me ask the pointed question: “What, what?” What indeed.

Where did this “what, what” come from? Why am I talking crazy? Forget Facebook photos. Maybe I just saw a bear drinking from a water fountain on a cold, winter day. Maybe my car smells like booze when I don’t drink. In any case where the immediate circumstance drops my guard, I have no choice but to react. I have to react with the quickest phrase I can grab. I let my residual memory take over. The words to leave my lips are unscripted, unplanned. “What, what?” I say. It just seems like the right words for the strange occasion.

What have I just said?

Truthfully, there’s no answer to the question, “What, what?” It’s not even a question. It’s an exclamation, much like the old traditional “What the heck” and its many variants. But we all know that. But do we know why that?

I think it comes down to brain laziness. Think about it. We know the strange circumstance deserves a reaction. But asking “what the heck,” “what the hell,” or “what the f—” demands us to examine the f— for what it is, and maybe the f— is too much trouble to examine. Maybe we want to simplify our reaction, or simply react without the consequence of thinking. We want something more general, hence the birth of the substitute phrase, “What the what.”

Though, to blame the phrase on “something general” is to give it too much credit. I think it’s more accurate to assume that “what the what” is our way of admitting that we don’t want to think about what “what” is. To try to pigeonhole it with “the heck” is to put too much thought into something that will be forgotten in five minutes or less. No, “what the what” is plenty to get our point across. Obviously, what we’re seeing is nuts. It shouldn’t need further explanation or understanding. “What the what” expresses our understanding of “the heck” and “the f—” well enough without forcing us to explore the meaning behind it. It’s like finding Stevia or Splenda on the counter next to the coffeemaker, not reading its package, and calling it sugar. It’s just easier to assume without reading the truth.

But that over-credits the truth. In reality, we have to assume that language has begun to take the lazy way out, thanks to text speak and the already natural economy of English. And thanks to that economic handling of speech (read: lazy), we have since decided we don’t really need “the” to express our horror to “what the what” means, and hence we have simplified our reaction to that bear drinking from the water fountain with “what, what.”

The irony, of course, is that we must pause between the “what” and the “what,” making the sudden urgency of using “the” in our reaction pointless. Are we using “the” because we don’t want to slow down? Or are we omitting “the” because we’re too lazy to speak quickly? It’s a complicated subject, complicated enough to make me say, “What, what?”

My response? What indeed.