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I would like to understand the history of the modern expression “what say we” followed immediately by a verb phrase, used to make a suggestion and common in informal speech, as attested at Oxford Dictionaries

What say we take a break?

used in publication

 “Gillette Raises Bar With Five Blade Razor”. What Say We Make It An Even Dozen.
 (Businessweek headline)

and found in song lyrics

Baby, what say we stay together? (George Strait song “What Say”)
What say we go and crash your car? (Brand New song “Failure By Design”)

I stopped to notice that this expression is not, strictly speaking, grammatical and seems to be a contraction. I became curious what it might be a contraction of. There is the slightly longer “whaddya say we [suggestion (verb phrase)]” which is an informal version of “what do you say we”. This is still not, strictly speaking, grammatical. But it seems akin to “what say you to [suggestion (noun phrase)]”, such as the Shakespeare quotation offered in comment by AndrewLeach

What say you to a Neats foote?

which can equally be expressed as

What do (or would) you say to a Neats foote?

But I have no idea if it is reasonable to connect the dots.

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    I always assumed it derived from the Shakespearean-era "What say you" interrogative which probably evolved from "What sayest thou"
    – Jim
    Feb 1, 2013 at 7:34
  • Is there a "to" in there? Is there where you're getting [infinitive]? Feb 1, 2013 at 7:41
  • I don't think it is an infinitive. "What say we go," "What say we bludgeon him with a pickaxe handle," -- these are both finite indicative forms, surely?
    – Andrew Leach
    Feb 1, 2013 at 8:38
  • Since the question is not about the form of the verb after the expression but the expression itself, I have changed the wording.
    – MetaEd
    Feb 1, 2013 at 8:44
  • Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew (1616) Act 4 Sc 3: "What say you to a Neats foote?"; New Yorker (1966): "What say we skip a few 'fa-la-la's?" The OED's entry for what is long and a bit of a mess, really.
    – Andrew Leach
    Feb 1, 2013 at 8:52

2 Answers 2

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The two earliest instances I can find for OP's exact sense are...

1911 What say we play house with your'n, and we take mine home to yer maw so she won't jaw?
1914 What say we haze them sheep a few miles north, boys?

It's probably relevant to note that both cases involve a significantly "non-standard" speaker.

As noted, the "What say you?" dating back to Shakespeare isn't precisely the same usage, because it refers back to a question or issue previously raised (effectively, "What say you to that?"), whereas OP's usage refers forward to a suggestion about to be raised by the rest of the sentence.

I think it's particularly a characteristic of informal/careless/uneducated speech to discard quite a lot of words if they contribute little to the sense of an utterance (either because they're highly predictable, or because they're only there for the sake of grammaticality. The less well-educated hostess might be more likely to say "Cuppa?" where Lady Muck says "Would you like a cup of tea?"

Here's an earlier instance of an expanded form in Jack London's 1903 Novels and Social Writings...

What do you say we all go out and have a drink on it?


I see the modern usage as just a contracted form of "What do you say to the proposal that we...?" which doesn't actually adhere to any grammatical rules at all. By contrast, "What say you?" was perfectly grammatical in Shakespeare's day (before do-support rose to prominence, and we started replacing constructions like "Know you him?" with "Do you know him?").

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  • Do you have any information about the dialect(s) represented in the two instances you found?
    – MetaEd
    Feb 1, 2013 at 18:53
  • @MετάEd: Not really, but I think there's no doubt they're both "rustic" American speakers. And Jack London's American too, which may or may not be relevant. The substance of my answer wasn't so much concerned with where/how the form arose, but rather with explaining why it doesn't seem to relate to any current "grammatical rules". Feb 1, 2013 at 19:01
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I honestly think that "what's say we do..." Is just, "Let's say we do..." Just ignorantly spoken wrongly. For example: "Let's say we go McDonald's BEFORE starting a movie". Whereas "What's say we go to McDonalds BEFORE starting a movie" is something a 5 year old might have accidentally said. There's an episode of the office where Michael makes this mistake, and they point it out.

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  • Herb, you might have misunderstood the question: the expression is what say, not what's say. Note also that "what say we [verb]" means "let's [verb]", whereas "let's say we [verb]" has quite a different meaning. Nov 13, 2018 at 7:13

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