How did this begin? Did it really start with Bugs Bunny?


3 Answers 3



The Oxford English Dictionary says this colloquial use of the adverb up is very frequent from circa 1850, long before Bugs Bunny's 1940 debut. Two citations:

1838 E. C. Gaskell Let. 19 Aug. (1966) 37, I did not mention a word to Lucy but she must have guessed something was ‘up’.

1851 H. Mayhew London Labour I. 19/1 A shout in answer from the other asks ‘What's up?’


I found an antedating from 1813 in The history and adventures of Godfrey Ranger by David William Paynter:

Seeing such a large body of people before him, and being struck with the incessant moans that issued from every quarter, he made a sudden stand ; and staring around him with stupid amazement, exclaimed, "Soul o' my body, what's up here?"

And an 1819 in Right about face; or, Ben the Gordon boy by Emily Brodie:

The child had fainted, and after some minutes, much to Bob's relief, opened her eyes. " What's up with you, Nell ? " he asked kindly. " I's so tired ; carry me home, Bob." And so Bob did, wondering greatly what could have come over his little sister.

  • I've sent these antedatings to the OED.
    – Hugo
    Commented Mar 17, 2013 at 15:37

As reported by Wiktionary, what's up has been made popular by the cartoon character Bugs Bunny, who used it as part of his catch phrase "What’s up Doc?" (around 1940).
Whatsup was used in the short story "The adventures of Shamrock Jolnes" from O' Henry (September 11, 1862 - June 5, 1910).

"Good morning, Whatsup," he said, without turning his head. "I'm glad to notice that you've had your house fitted up with electric lights at last."

What's up is used in "The Sea-Wolf", written by Jack London and published in 1904.

"What’s up?" I asked Wolf Larsen, unable longer to keep my curiosity in check.

"Never mind what’s up," he answered gruffly. "You won’t be a thousand years in finding out, and in the meantime just pray for plenty of wind."

  • 2
    @kiamlaluno, I don't think Wiktionary is a very reliable source. Commented Apr 21, 2011 at 7:42
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    Besides, Wiktionary doesn't claim that it began with Bugs Bunny. Commented Apr 21, 2011 at 7:47
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    @Kiam Your first example is a NAME - a spoof off Watson.
    – mplungjan
    Commented Apr 21, 2011 at 8:21
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    @mplungjan Did I say it was not a name?
    – avpaderno
    Commented Apr 21, 2011 at 8:38
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    @mplungjan In fact, it is not the etymology of what's up; I simply reported where whatsup was used. Basing on the title of the short story, it's probably clear that Whatsup is a joke on the name Watson used in the Conan Doyle's stories. It is probably true that Whatsup should not had been chosen if what's up were not an already used expression.
    – avpaderno
    Commented Apr 21, 2011 at 9:09

I would derive "What's up?" from "What matter/problem has come up?".

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