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Usually, when being served the phrase "What can I do for you?" is used but sometimes I also hear "What can I do you for?" in quite the same context. So is there a difference or is it just a slip of the tongue?

Edit I also heard it amongst others in 'Allo 'Allo and once in The IT Crowd.

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8 Answers 8

up vote 28 down vote accepted

It's normally a joke.

It's 'funny' because "What can I do you for?" is actually a question that would never be asked, except rhetorically.

Do you, as in "I'm gonna do you in" is what a thug would say before he perpetrated violent acts against you. It could also be used by a police man, for example "Do him for possession", so do him is slang for arrest him.

There is also, the more pertinent definition of do you, which is what a swindler would think when tying to think how to trick you: "What can I do you for?" Where what they mean is "What can I get out of you with my tricks?"

Whereas "What can I do for you?" is someone simply asking how they can help. In the context of a barman, it would be asking what drink or other pub service they can provide.

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6  
Just want to add, when you hear the joke in the exact same context as the correct phrase then it's not meant in any threatening way, it's just the server being corny. –  jhocking Apr 24 '11 at 11:10
    
@jhocking: yes, that's a good point. –  Matt Эллен Apr 24 '11 at 15:37
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I always thought that in this joke, do you meant fuck you. (I can say fuck here, right?) –  Petruza Apr 24 '11 at 18:47
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@Petruza: No, not in my experience. As I say, it's someone pretending that they will swindle you. Do you can be a sexual reference, but not in this instance. –  Matt Эллен Apr 24 '11 at 19:51
    
Agree that it's not sexual - either swindling or arresting, or possibly violence, as you say in your answer :) –  psmears Apr 25 '11 at 21:59

No one has hit the right tone with this one yet, so I'm going to step in.

What can I do you for?

is, as others have said, a playful inversion of "What can I do for you?" However, it is a bit more than that. It is said as a kind of challenge, announcing that the speaker is identifying himself (again, playfully) as someone who might actually take advantage of the person being addressed. The impression is that the speaker is a sly dog who commonly swindles people and is not likely to be swindled himself. It is playfully confrontational. If said to a friend, it's a joke. If said to a stranger, it can be almost a warning.

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Right. And a variant expression in commerce, "If you've got the money, I've got the time," works in a similar way with the nuances of challenge, playfulness, and innuendo. –  The Raven Apr 24 '11 at 11:07
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Can be a warning, but if a waiter in an informal eatery (eg. a diner) said that to me I would just take it as them being corny. –  jhocking Apr 24 '11 at 11:12
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I've never heard this phrase used in a way that is anything other than mildly humorous and corny. –  kubi Apr 24 '11 at 18:53
    
@kubi: Notice I said "(again, playfully)" and "playfully confrontational" — my answer is trying to point out the source of the (admittedly small amount of) humor. It's not just about reversing the word order, it's what said reversal implies. –  Robusto Apr 24 '11 at 23:52
    
+1 for another dimension. –  Kris Oct 20 '12 at 8:02

It is commonly used, so it's not really a slip of the tongue. It probably originates in a playful inversion of the usual order for words, which would be “What can I do for you?”.

Also, beware! Unlike what I thought the first time it was said to me, this is not commonly meant (and should not be understood as) a sexual proposition.[1]



[1] See: do (transitive verb; vulgar; slang) • have sexual intercourse with.

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I was not aware of the large number of alternate meanings, because when used in my hearing, it usually *did have a sexual overtone. But that may have been just the company I was keeping: my brother. –  shipr Apr 24 '11 at 14:00
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+1 for TMI! haha :) –  Paul Amerigo Pajo Apr 24 '11 at 20:24
    
do is so common, generally I don't have that context in mind - but good point –  mbx Apr 26 '11 at 9:31

The turn of phrase dates at least back to the early 1940's. see Google NGrams and Popular Science, July 1941

"... Oh, it's Doc Foley, is it? What can I do you for, Doc?" "You can tell me what you did for-and to- that fellow Fred Conroy," Dr. Foley said.

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+1 Helps throw some light indeed. Thanks Wayfaring, What can I do you for? –  Kris Oct 20 '12 at 8:01

From a textual standpoint, it's an informal expression. The colloquial inversion of the more standard wording is common in various regions of the U.S., including the South and rural areas to the west. When used in a playful way with a feigned accent, it could be to make fun of country folk, to romanticize southern hospitality or just to have fun with a little make-believe.

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The near-unanimous conclusion that "What can I do you for?" is basically a joke and a play on words seems to be incorrect. While the writers of Allo Allo and IT Crowd might well have employed it to that effect, having sat through the film Shane earlier today, it appears that this was standard usage (at least) in 1953 and likely in AlabamaWyoming in the 1800s which is the setting for the story. The film is based on a novel of the same name.

According to a transcript of the dialogue, the following are all questions asked either by shopkeepers or bartenders:

Anything I can do you for?
- I came to get wire for Joe Starrett.
- I've been holding wire for Starrett for quite a spell.

A whole bunch came in. They brought their women to protect them.
- My jars come yet?
- Howdy, Starrett. What can I do you for?

Hello, Torrey. Something I can do you for?
- A jug. It's the Fourth.
- Come in, come in.
- Jug. And a whiskey.

A record studio owner from the movie "O Brother, Where art thou?" asks a similar question. This film is set in Mississippi in the 1930s.

The phrase "What can I do you for?" also has an entry in the book, Slang American style: more than 10,000 ways to talk the talk:

What can I do you for? interrog. "How can I help you?"; "How can I serve you?"

You can also hear it in the TV show, Dexter (Season 2, Episode 5, ~36 minutes), where a barman in Florida asks the eponymous protagonist the same question. He replies with, "Beer, whatever's on tap". There is no innuendo or any jocular overtones to the conversation.

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Shane is I believe set in Wyoming—certainly not Alabama, or anywhere within a thousand miles of Alabama! In any case, linguistic historicism has never been characteristic of Hollywood scriptwriting. On the few occasions where it's been attempted the results have generally been embarassing and have excited mirth among historians and linguists. –  StoneyB Nov 4 '12 at 16:33
    
@StoneyB You're quite right. In fact, while viewing the film I was under the impression that it was set in Wyoming thanks to a couple of mentions of Cheyenne. However, later in the movie, Elisha Cook's character raises a toast to the Great State of Alabama; hence my confusion. I also don't think too many Swedes settled down in Alabama :) Also, the book is based on a novel which might well care for linguistic accuracy. I'm not sure how faithful the script is to it. But I expect that such lines were probably lifted intact. Cheers. –  coleopterist Nov 4 '12 at 16:47
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Cook's character is an ex-Confederate, from Alabama (like me—and we share a nickname). The first (1912) instance I find supports 'joke'; the second (1913) may support 'fraud'. –  StoneyB Nov 4 '12 at 17:34

I've heard it used jokingly with a sexual connotation, and also — many times — used wrongly instead of the correct "what can I do for you".

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It means the same. It is merely a play on words. Some people have been wondering if it has a sexual undertone, but that is not correct (at least not under normal circumstances).

You can hear it anyway - stores, restaurants and with friends.

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