Some background first: As I was reading some past answers on English L&U, I came across this old question, where the top accepted answer maintained there were distinct class differences in the use of the expression "cheers" amongst the British. Some people disagreed with the tone of the accepted answer; in particular, the answerer was accused of stereotyping in the comments, and his response was challenged by another user who in response gave what he obviously considered a laughable stereotype of upper-class English speaking: "Top drawer, what?!"

I remembered then that I'd often seen and heard "wot wot" used in the same mocking way. For example, one of my childhood friends, if he wanted to play mock-Briton, might say something like: "Tally-ho, old bean, wot wot?" Googling informs me this usage isn't just idiosyncratic on his part; evidently, lots of people are interested in the history of this phrase, as Google suggests "wot wot British" as a query, with IMO few helpful responses on the first couple of pages.

So is this impression accurate: Did upper-class (or any class, for that matter) British really use to speak like this, i.e. is this expression mocking because it's so archaic that it seems funny now? If not, where did this caricature come from?

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    It'd also be helpful if someone could explain how the "what" in "Top drawer, what?!" adds extra meaning to the sentence. – Uticensis Feb 27 '11 at 23:52
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    That usage of "..., what?" at the end of the sentence is an alternative to saying "don't you think?" or "is that not so?", turning a statement in to a slightly rhetorical question as to whether or not the listener agrees. It is generally associated entirely with the upper class, in particular Hoorah Henrys. – Orbling Feb 28 '11 at 0:44
  • It's a very pervasive caricature and you'll find it in lots of TV and literature, so it would be interesting to find out that it's not genuine! – gpr Feb 28 '11 at 4:35
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    "wot wot" is just a respelling/misspelling of "what what" (I think). – ShreevatsaR Feb 28 '11 at 4:37
  • I always thought what what was a "gangster" expression: urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=what%20what – grautur Jul 20 '11 at 11:40

Best of my knowledge, the "wot wot" verbal tic is specifically British, Georgian and definitely an upper-class marker.

Indeed, one of the most famous adept of this "wot wot" verbal tic, was George III (the one of the American Independence), as seen in the film "The Madness of King George" (recommended).

I did not count them but the script puts tens of these "wot wot" in the mouth of actor Nigel Hawthorne. And they seem to apply indifferently to both insignificant everyday life events and to important political matters. This trait contributes to depicting a King in constant need of approbation from his entourage, often assailed by doubts that he is fit for the task laid on his shoulders, at times prone to hiding behind authoritarianism but actually unsure of being genuinely perceived as the first really English king of the Hanover dynasty.

Significantly enough, he is, best of my recollections, the only character in the film afflicted with this verbal tic. This is by no means sufficient to conjecture that he might have started the trend. However, if the film is to be trusted on the subject, he must certainly have amplified it. Even more so considering the length of his reign (as there is apparently a rule about mad kings in both France and England that they should enjoy a long reign ;-) )

In some of today's British upper-class circles, you can still hear it in the form of a single "what ?", added at the end of a short colloquial sentence as a short way of asking "what do you say ?" in the context of an invitation.

An example usage would be: "Let's go for a walk, what ? [what do you say]" or "a storm is brewing, what ? [what do you think]". Since it is perceived as old fashioned and slightly snob, it is gently mocked in plays, shows and popular culture and has also now become a cliché.

Either around the time of "King George" and the "red coats", or may be later (but that would not be "wot wot" but "what") this stereotype might have been extended in the United States to the whole British people (conjecture again I'm afraid).

As an aside, there are in English, many other regional verbal tics whereby people interject a word at the end of a sentence in order to ask for approbation.

  • In Canada for instance, they say "eh?" a lot. It's like sending an invitation for "empathic approbation", and it has also become a stereotype. "The Canucks can't loose that one, eh?"
  • In Singapore it's "one" or "lah".
    "It's gonna rain again, lah. I'd better stay at home, one". In this case it means something like "Don't you think ?" or close to "I'm pretty sure about that."
  • In the US, you can sometimes hear some people frequently interjecting "like" at the end of sentences and even sometimes in the middle. In this case I think the semantic need is one similar to the more common "you know": asking for permission no to elaborate. I have no idea however, how it came to be "like".
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  • @Alain Pannetier To be clear Alain, it is not that your answer is not excellent (it is), but to manually award a bounty apparently I must wait 24 hours...to thank you for answering so many of my hard questions! – Uticensis Mar 15 '11 at 8:16
  • @Billare, this seem to be a new Bounty ;-) Thx. Since some of the points are only conjectural, may I suggest to wait a few days to see whether more EL&S members can complement what I put forward. – Alain Pannetier Φ Mar 15 '11 at 8:30
  • @Alain Pannetier OK. – Uticensis Mar 15 '11 at 8:39
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    +1 for the history. You won't hear "what what?" used nowadays in British English except to evoke images of upper-class twits, but a single "what?" is a common enough upper-class marker. BTW, it's specifically people from Newfoundland that say "Eh?" a lot, rather than all Canadians, eh? – user1579 Mar 15 '11 at 19:41
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    Or, from Asterix in Britain, "I say, don't you know what's wot, what?" – TRiG Apr 13 '11 at 23:45

The correct (or at least original) spelling for the term is "wot". "What, what!" is a malaprop that results from, and perpetuates, a misinterpretation of the term's meaning.

"Wot" is very old. It comes from an archaic formal third-person conjugation of "wit" (the verb), which at one time used to mean "to know" or "to understand". The full phrase, then, was originally "you wot". It eventually got shortened to "y'wot", and finally just simply "wot".

With that, the purpose of the phrase should be now pretty clear. "Wot" is simply a very, very old-school version of one of Modern English's most over-used phrases: "y'know".

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  • +1 for the link to wit. Here is btw another question about wit. Thx for this update. I'm away from my Old English books but will check it out asap. – Alain Pannetier Φ Jul 20 '11 at 19:05
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    This is an interesting idea, but I don't believe it. Are there any credible references? – FumbleFingers Nov 29 '12 at 23:54
  • I think it's a stereotypical early-20th or late-19th caricature of british speakers, but what I wonder is, is it stereotypical and yet not found in the literature of the day, as written evidence that real brits spoke this way, or not. – Warren P Aug 16 '19 at 22:53

P.G. Wodehouse's fictional character Bertie Wooster says "what?" a lot. Bertie Wooster is a caricature of an English upper class twit. See some examples at http://f2.org/humour/quotes/fic/wodehouse.html

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    If you could expand on this answer a bit, I'd love to award an answer to you. I'm just a little more curious about the history! – Uticensis Mar 11 '11 at 3:01

I would associate "..., what what?" with a old-fashioned military officer stereotype like Colonel Blimp. "Wot wot" (pronounced the same, so a deliberate illiteracy) might be an affectation by comedian Russell Brand.

Currently the most common use is in a pre-school children's television programme The WotWots and the linked range of toys.

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