There is a fight scene in one of my favorite movies in which the main character says

"Give them what for!"

I've hear this term many times before (usually from old south-eastern Americans,) but no one has been able to give me good explanation for the phrase. What does it mean and/or where does it come from? The best answer that I have heard so far goes something like this:

People used to say "What for did you do that?" so "what for" refers to their reason for doing something. Saying "give them what for" is another way of saying "Give them a reason..." (to run away, fight, or what ever.)

I'd really like to know how 'what' and 'for' came together and became a metaphor.

  • 1
    It's "slang", first recorded by OED 1873 Routledge's Yng. Gentl. Mag. Feb. 137/1 It'll give you what for if it touches your lips., with the definition to give (one) what for = to inflict severe pain or chastisement. My guess is it's just another variation on "I'll give you XXX!" - where XXX is usually some word used earlier by the person being chastised, but in this case is in anticipation of the fact that they're going to say "What did you hit me for?". Commented Apr 1, 2014 at 23:01
  • That sounds similar to the reason that I was given. The term seems to relate to the reason for an (violent) action that has yet to happen.
    – Hoytman
    Commented Apr 1, 2014 at 23:08
  • @FumbleFingers An answer?
    – bib
    Commented Apr 2, 2014 at 1:16
  • @bib: It's only a "guess" - but perhaps I'll post it as an answer later if no-one else comes up with a more convincing rationale. Commented Apr 2, 2014 at 12:20
  • I'm from Toronto and have never heard the usage in the question. "What for?" is only ever used as equivalent to "Why?" around here.
    – Joe Murray
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 6:42

7 Answers 7


What for (Informal):

A scolding or strong reprimand: The teacher gave the tardy student what for.

Source: Collins Dictionary

  • 1
    It's a very old British idiom that derives from a rhetorical question, "say please", "what for?", "I'll give you 'What For'!".
    – Dead.Rabit
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 19:05

My grandparents used the term.... it means, a reprimand, scolding, etc. "I'll give him a good "what for"!

  • 1
    You should give more information about the region where this expression is /was used. It seems to be an idiom of a special variant of American English. I don't know if there is something like a language atlas for AmE, where one sees what expression is used in what region.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 3:24
  • The idea of fist seems really to have changed to mean reprimand or scolding.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 3:30
  • Welcome to ELU, Bird. Like so many native English speakers, you can relate the expression intuitively to a real scolding you received from someone using some form of the expression, What ... for?
    – ScotM
    Commented Jul 5, 2015 at 23:34

The phrase, "give them what for", is an expression that was used much more during the late 1800's and up through the mid-1900's. Like so many "slang" terms, phrases & expressions, they become popular with a particular generation, however, as that generation gets older and begins to perish, the usage of that phrase becomes more & more obsolete. That's not to say that the expression is never used, but the individuals who use the term today, let alone understand the meaning, are few and far in between.

The expression, "Give them what for" or simply, "what for", means to punish, reprimand, castigate, etc.

If someone told u that u were going to be punished, your natural response would be, "what for" a.k.a. (the reason for punishment). There's always a reason for a punishment. When someone or something is punished for NO REASON, that's called malevolent, cruel & barbaric (rotten to the core).

So, to properly use the expression, "give them what for", the person(s), that's being punished, must be aware of their wrong-doing and/or mistake. The perpetrator doesn't need to be aware of the upcoming punishment or who's going to deliver the punishment. For example, if you & a friend witnessed an elderly woman being mugged, and you were close enough to help the woman, you might say to your friend, "Let's go give that prick some what for!" (sorry about corny example) Hope that helps, at least little bit.


American Heritage Dictionary has the idiom in the entry "what", idiom what for, number one: a scolding or strong reprimand: The teacher gave the tardy student what for. - Without any etymology. No mention of this twisted expression in Usage Ñote. https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=what+for&submit.x=53&submit.y=18

If one googles for "to give someone what for" one gets a lot of sites.

Wikionary has some fine incidents, one from Wilbur Smith, 2007, but unfortunately not a word about the origin. https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/give_someone_what_for

Dictionary.com cites an example from the Dictionary of American Slang, by Kipfer, Chapman. No etymology. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/give+someone+what+for

Oxford Dictionaries says the saying is chiefly British. - In this formulation this is doubtful, as the saying is used in AmE as well and seen as AmE by Kipfer. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/give-someone-what-for

Alpha.dictionary.com is the first site I find, where the saying is discussed, but "what for" is taken literally and explained in this why. I do not find that the explanation is convincing. But we get the information that the saying was used by Kipling and Jack London. http://www.alphadictionary.com/bb/viewtopic.php?t=4907

  • What did you do that for? The alphadictionary post is plausible, but like so many colloquial expressions finding their way into writing, we may never know the primary source. It is probably reduced from multiple heterogeneous sources: One author of fiction might have written colloquial dialogue inspired by memory of his grandfather, while another author was inspired by quite a different interaction with his mother. Neither of them bothered to reveal their inspiration. It was irrelevant; most of us can intuit the meaning from a similar interaction with someone.
    – ScotM
    Commented Jul 5, 2015 at 23:30

I've always understood "what for" to be a response to the question "what for?" ~~~ Example: "You're in big trouble mister." "What for?!" "Oh I'll give you "what for"! Get over here!" ~~~ Unfortunately I don't have any source to back that up, save my own frayed memories.


I think something is hidden just after "FOR".

we need a verb here to complete the sentence.

some verbs such as "Deserving" or "Waiting".

(( Give Them What for they deserve/waiting ))

This type of slang has a threatening sense

  • Welcome to ELU. You're right that it could be threatening, but the phrase doesn't need anything. As an idiom, it is what it is. The question is about the origins of this usage, rather than its grammatical correctness.
    – JHCL
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 15:29

The typical phrases used are "you sure gave them what for" or "i'll give you what for".

The problem is, the words aren't actually "what for". They are ONE FOUR. As in 1 thumb, 4 fingers. In other words, a fist. It's a way to say that you fought well, or threaten someone with a punch to the face.

  • 4
    There should be a source where "one four" is from.
    – rogermue
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 7:10
  • 3
    A rather fanciful explanation, which doesn't convince me. A closed fist includes all five fingers; a thumb is also a finger.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 7:43
  • I don't understand the downvotes. "what for" does not make any sense in the idiom I'll give you what for" and it really looks like a twisted saying. The metaphor one four for fist (a thumb and four fingers ) makes sense and is the only reasonable idea for an explanation up to now. Of course, it would be interesting to find things that could harden this explanation. it seems an idiom of a special area and probably only special dictionaries of that area will have more information. FumbleFingers quotation It will give you what seems to be a typo. "It" should be "I", I think.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 3:16
  • I ran Google books searches for "gave them one four," "give them one four," "gave him one four," "give him one four," "gave you one four," "give you one four," "gave me one four," and "give me one four"—and the searches returned zero matches for those strings as complete phrases. (They found a handful of matches for things like "If you're a clerk in a clothing store and big Mike orders a suit, give him one four sizes too small.") The fact that not one occurrence of "one four" in the sense of "what for" appears in Google Books' millions of scanned volumes suggests that this answer is incorrect.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 10:48
  • I perfectly understand the down votes and have just added to them. The expression is and always has been 'give * what for'. Note to Sven Yargs: You don't need to type them in exhaustively, simply use the wild-card * as in "give * what for" Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 16:13

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