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The exclamation "Why, I never!" is a well-worn exclamation (I think more common in Britain than in the US?), often used to express indignation upon having been accused of something.

The structure of the sentence suggests that this exclamation is a contraction of something like "Why, I never [verb]!" or "Why, I never have [verbed]!". I know that there may not be a canonical verb in the original sentence that was contracted to give this exclamation, but I was wondering what possibilities might exist.

(It's worth noting that it is difficult to search for this exclamation, because it tends to be swamped by unrelated constructions like "Why I never walk alone at night" and things like that.)

  • Why, I (have) never (the thought is offensive)! – Elliott Frisch Jan 11 '14 at 4:56
  • I might say this in mock indignation, then after a short pause add "well, I sometimes...". Timing. It's, like, everything. (-: – Jim Mack Jan 11 '14 at 13:15
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Based on its usage, I would take it as a shortening of something like:

Why, I never heard something so (outrageous|shocking|rude|etc) before in my life!"

I'm accustomed to the phrase as a response of indignation in the face of behavior that is seen as inappropriate to one degree or another.

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  • Is it a question? – Thomas Ahle Dec 15 '15 at 15:25
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    I've never seen the phrase "Why, I never!" used as a question, no. "Why" is being used as an interjection. – asfallows Dec 16 '15 at 16:14
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It's more commonly "Well, I never!" rather than "Why, I never!"

The OED says it's British and along with "Well, I never did!" may be a shortening of an earlier phrase such as "Well, I never was so surprised!" and I imagine "Well, I never heard/saw such a thing!" also fits the bill.

Their first quotation of "Well, I never" is from 1836 but I found an earlier one from December 29, 1832 in a short story called "Quite Beyond Belief" by Mrs. George Crookshank published in The Maids, Wives, and Widows' Penny Magazine, and Gazette of Fashion (No. 10, Vol. I).

It's a good one as it's one of the protagonist "usual exclamations", used several times along with variations such as "Well, if ever!", "Well, did you ever?", "No, I never!", "Well it's quite beyond belief!". This suggests the phrase means "I never would believe such a thing!".

Here's the story in full (or click through to Google Books to zoom in):

"Taken possession of my carriage! Well I never," exclaimed Mrs. Dalby, pale with rage, and shaking with agitation...

Page 76


(The OED offers a parenthetical 1816 for a "Well, I never was so surprised!". This phrase can be antedated to 1777 in The School for scandal: a comedy in five acts by Richard Brinsley Sheridan: "Well, I never was so surprised in all my life!")

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I was clouded by this very puzzle in my early teens, trying to cognise this very expression in Herge's "Tintin" comics -as uttered/spoken by the character, "Professor Curthbert Calculus".

But he went > "Well I never!". I suppose the former is just another form of "Why I never"?

Anyway my understanding was justified (back then) whenn I assumed it must've been a contraction of "Well I never 'would've!'" or "Well I never 'could!'/'could've!' or similar.

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  • Maybe more common in Britain, but that fine American song from High Society uses "Well, did you evah?", to mean [I guess] "Well, did you ever see such a ...?" – David Garner Nov 7 '16 at 10:49
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"Well I never" was used as a expression of surprise in the south west country of England when I grew up in the 1950's. I do not remember its use as indignation. Another similar one was "Well sop me bob" or similar - possibly a contraction of "well soft-soap me bob" which I never saw written down. Meaning disbelief. Probably related to "Bobs your uncle"

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