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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
    Commented Feb 27, 2011 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
    Commented Feb 28, 2011 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
    Commented Feb 28, 2011 at 4:35
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    "wot wot" is just a respelling/misspelling of "what what" (I think). Commented Feb 28, 2011 at 4:37
  • I always thought what what was a "gangster" expression: urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=what%20what
    – grautur
    Commented Jul 20, 2011 at 11:40

5 Answers 5

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+50

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
    Commented Mar 15, 2011 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. Commented Mar 15, 2011 at 8:30
  • @Alain Pannetier OK.
    – Uticensis
    Commented Mar 15, 2011 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
    Commented Mar 15, 2011 at 19:41
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    Or, from Asterix in Britain, "I say, don't you know what's wot, what?"
    – TRiG
    Commented Apr 13, 2011 at 23:45
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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. Commented Jul 20, 2011 at 19:05
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    This is an interesting idea, but I don't believe it. Are there any credible references? Commented Nov 29, 2012 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
    Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 22:53
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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
    Commented Mar 11, 2011 at 3:01
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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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This is a conjecture, but derived somewhat from Buzz's answer. I (I'm English) had originally always assumed it was short for "what do you think/reckon?" i.e. "do you agree?", but that it had long ago mutated into a verbal tic on the part of the speakers concerned. So I'm interested to hear about the derivation from "wit".

I wonder if it might originally have been short for "God wot"... You can find plenty of examples of this expression from the 18th century or before, and it would therefore conceivably be a tic derived from saying "as God knows ..." at the end of random sentences. Since it is/was blasphemous to "take the name of the Lord in vain", including using the word "God" in a frivolous, non-religious way, I'm wondering whether speakers might just have had a tendency to drop (or elide) the word "God", particularly in gentile or religious company (or the company of women, for example).

This is speculation, but I haven't found an authoritative explanation online as yet.

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