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I live in Florida, and somehow picked up this phrase recently. I use it to mean, "About what are you making such a fuss?," either because I can't understand what is the big deal or because I genuinely have little-to-no idea what the person is talking about.

Is this correct usage? Is this an English idiom (from England)?

For bonus respect, why or from whence the unusual construction? Is it just that a word was dropped between "you" and "on," like "What are you carrying on about?"

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I have to say, "about what are you making such a fuss?" sounds amusingly awkward. –  Kosmonaut Jan 12 '11 at 1:31
    
There's also "what are you on?", but that's a different idiom :) –  Benjol Jan 12 '11 at 8:19
    
Kosmonaut - And I have to agree. If you want to sound natural, in the UK at least, end sentences with prepositions. There are now only a few exceptions, and almost exclusively in writing. Any good language course book will tell the student this. And remember Jay, not all Brits are English. We Scots are very sensitive to this. :) –  RandomIdeaEnglish Jan 12 '11 at 13:19
    
@RandomIdeaEnglish I actually thought it was peculiarly English, rather than British. –  Jay Jan 12 '11 at 14:44
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2 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

It seems that the Brits use this and consider it typically British:

  • Alan Townsend, a British teacher of English, used this phrase in an ESL idiom test he made.
  • Mister Micawber, an American teacher of English who has lived in Japan for a long time, appears to know it and finds it normal enough (same link), so it is probably not new in America either.
  • It is mentioned as typically British in this list of British idioms.

However, they all seem to use it somewhat differently from the way you use it, only as "what are you talking about?" — there appears to be no connotation of complaining about a fuss. The Urban Dictionary agrees:

what are you on about?

"what do you mean?"

it is a shortened version on "what are you going on about?" or "what are you talking about?"

usually used when someone is not making sense for extended periods of time or if you feel like you've missed something.

(Sic.) So it seems you were right to think that a participle was dropped; since "what are you going on about?" is also used in England, it must be "going". Perhaps it has branched out into new meanings in America.

[Edit] I have also heard other dialects and regions claim it, so we can't be sure of its origin.

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The dropped word is probably "going", as when English say it more slowly they say "What are you going on about?" Talking is also used, but more rarely. –  Orbling Jan 12 '11 at 4:07
    
@Orbling: Thanks, I will add that. –  Cerberus Jan 12 '11 at 5:00
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Yes, going is quite often added. Also more colourful words like 'blithering', 'blathering', 'yabbering' and 'gibbering', which are a bit more caustic. –  user3444 Jan 12 '11 at 9:02
    
@ElendilTheTall: Good examples, those words tend to get used in that expression more than anywhere else, with the exception of blithering, which has its highest appearance count in blithering idiot. –  Orbling Jan 12 '11 at 12:39
    
I would say that there is a slight nuance between 'on about' and 'going on about' - for me the first simply means 'I haven't a clue what you are talking about', but the second suggests you've been 'blethering' (in Scotland) about it for some time. –  RandomIdeaEnglish Jan 12 '11 at 13:08
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In Australia, "What are you on about?" implies to the person that they are just plain wrong about what they were talking about. It is often said somewhat sneeringly, as though you have a superior level of knowledge compared to them.

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