Say What?

Investigations of slang by the editor of the Random House Dictionary of American Slang.

Random House Dictionary of American Slang

Or what?

"DO you love it," a sassy Bravo journalist cries at the annual Art Car Weekend in Houston, "or what?" Weeks later, in Boston, one of National Public Radio's Car Talk hosts says, "Hey, Mabel! Can I have some hash with those eggs, or what?" In an episode of The Simpsons some years ago Homer asked God, "Are we the most pathetic family on the planet, or what?" The or what? inventory could go on and on, but if you've been following trends in pop rhetoric, you already know what we're dealing with.

There's an old-model or what? and a sporty new or what? In a diary entry in 1766 the old-model New Englander John Adams asked himself, "In what is this man conspicuous? -- in reasoning, in imagination, in painting, in the pathetic [that is, `sympathetic feeling or expression'], or what?" That is the classic or what? A sniffy schoolmaster of the time might have taken Adams to task for failing to keep his phrases quite parallel ("You mean, sir, `or in what?'!"), but that particular quibble would occur to few of us today. For well over two centuries or what? has served the useful purpose in English of eliciting a concrete answer from a wide-open range of unspecified choices. ("Hey, Mabel! Are we having eggs or hash or Danish, or what?") The new or what? is decidedly more aggressive.

"Is this a great idea, or what?" "Was that her best performance ever, or what?" These new-school or what?s get tacked on to semi-rhetorical yes-or-no questions with the not-very-ulterior motive of commanding total agreement. They're "peremptory or what?s," in contrast to "inquisitive or what?s" -- both terms being ad hoc additions to the vocabulary of micro-semantic description. Any sensible reply to Adams ("Sir, he is conspicuous in his mediocrity") would be broadly informative rather than merely affirmative. Peremptory or what?s can embellish yes-or-no questions alone. The peremptory "Do you love it, or what?" implies that of course you love it, and if you don't, you'd better get ready to explain yourself.

Whence came the peremptory or what? -- from Hawaiian pidgin (as one correspondent suggests)? Yiddish (always a handy hypothesis)? Or what? There is no real need to search far afield: English, like every other living language, often reinvents itself on its own inspiration. Lots of little idioms are generated almost unconsciously. Y'know? Yeah, right! Sez who? Uh-hunh. Izzat so? And how! Say what? Duh.

Under just-right conditions even the old-model inquisitive or what? can imbue a yes-or-no question with a degree of irony or sarcasm. For example, the nineteenth-century poet Edward FitzGerald, who translated Omar Khayyám's Rubáiyát into English, once impatiently inquired of an acquaintance, "Have you supposed me dead or what?" Surely that or what? effectively plays up the absurdity of any notion that FitzGerald was dead. The current peremptory or what? may have battened on this well-established tendency toward irony. (The faded craze for what might be called the accentuated postpositive not, repopularized by Mike Myers and Wayne's World after decades of dormancy, plays with an even more heavy-handed irony: It's really subtle. Not!)

And here's another angle. The peremptory or what? most typically features a pause before the or and emphatic stress on the what. The earliest example I am aware of with the current stress came in a 1964 episode of TV's The Dick Van Dyke Show, when a self-assured moron asked Laura Petrie, "You wanna go out Sataday night -- aw what?" (The laugh track really appreciated this no-nonsense approach.) That cheeky or what? presupposes a "yes" and forestalls any other answer, at least in theory -- a rhetorical feat pretty much beyond the reach of traditional or what? questions. Maybe it occupies a niche in Broca's area of the brain -- that is, the speech area -- near the one filled by an equally forceful phrase that crept into English in the nineteenth century, and with just as little fanfare: the ever useful or else!

Illustration by J. Otto Seibold

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1998; Say What?; Volume 282, No. 4; page 120.