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I'm curious: is this valid under some rule of grammar I don't know? Was it ever valid, or was it slang or a personal idiosyncrasy? Or (I shudder to think) was it invented by later authors, as a phrase that sounds sufficiently outlandish to add "flavor" to a novel?

I've run across this construction in several "period" novels set in the 18th century, most recently in The Yellow Admiral by Patrick O'Brian:

'I shall just have time to run up to the House for the committee meeting, deliver my thunderbolt, and then post down to Torbay, where Heneage Dundas will touch before the change of the moon, landing Jenkins -,

'Who him?'

'My jobbing captain, my temporary replacement,' said Jack, and from his tone and the set of his face Stephen gathered that he did not think highly of the man.

I'd like to clarify: I am not talking about "Who, him?" ("are you seriously talking about THAT guy?"), nor am I talking about the poetic reversal of verb and object, as in Spenser's Faerie Queen:

At last, when as himself he 'gan to find
To Una back he cast him to retire:
Who him awaited still with pensive Mind.
Great thanks and goodly Meed, to that good Sire,
He thence departing gave for his pains Hire.
So came to Una, who him joy'd to see,
And after little rest, 'gan him desire,
Of her Adventure mindful for to be.
So leave they take of Caelia, and her Daughters three.

I ask because... well, I rather like the sound of it, and have been tempted to slip it into my own conversation. But I'd like to have cover for the inevitable discussion afterward!

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  • Side question: how the hell do you add line breaks in block comments that aren't paragraph breaks? I would have put the Spenser in blockquotes, but apparently I have to choose double spacing or none. Grrr...
    – MT_Head
    Jun 4, 2011 at 17:49
  • 2
    Two spaces on the end of the preceding line.
    – njd
    Jun 4, 2011 at 18:57
  • Sounds like pidgin english to me.
    – Guffa
    Jun 4, 2011 at 19:10
  • @Guffa - In The Yellow Admiral, the speaker (Stephen Maturin) is an educated man, a physician. Throughout that series, he's distinguished by speaking a far more correct and grammatical English than the sailors and sea-officers around him; however, he is Irish, and O'Brian occasionally inserts Irish phrases, or English phrases that are direct word-for-word translations of Irish phrases, into his speech. So it's possible that "Who him?" is intended as an "Irishism"; however, in the other novels where I've seen it (if only I could find them again!) the speakers were English (and educated.)
    – MT_Head
    Jun 4, 2011 at 21:38
  • 1
    The Irish for “Who is he?” Is Cé hé (sin)?, which does indeed translate directly as ‘who him (there)?’. É is somewhat tricky (as is the analysis of copular clauses), but in Modern Irish it is at least distinct from ‘he’ in that the latter can only function as the subject of an active verb (a true nominative or unaccusative case), while the former is just a general oblique and everything-else form. Jan 29, 2014 at 18:01

4 Answers 4

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The phrase "who him" is also used in Jamaican dialect. It may mean "who is he?" , as well as "who does he think he is?." This depends on the situation in which the phrase is used and also the tone used to deliver the phrase. I tend to use it to mean "who does he think he is."

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  • Is this a comment on another answer? Or do you intend it as an independent answer to the question?
    – MetaEd
    Jan 10, 2013 at 2:54
1

"Who he" or "Who him" are idiomatic usages. They're not that common, but they are at least understood, if not very widely.

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  • I was hoping for documentation... if it doesn't exist, I suppose I can live with that.
    – MT_Head
    Jun 5, 2011 at 17:06
  • I suspect you have more documentation of its use in writing than I do.
    – Marcin
    Jun 5, 2011 at 18:13
0

Not a B.E. speaker, so I can't say for sure on that side of the pond, but A.E. wouldn't typically ever use this construction. While I have no problem grasping the semantic meaning, the syntax sounds "odd" to my ear, and would likely get a bit of a raise. That alone might be worth using it. ;-)

3
  • I'm fairly certain it isn't current usage anywhere at all; definitely not here in 'Murka, as you say! But I do enjoy using the occasional archaism - I just like to make sure that it's actually a valid archaism. By the way, I happen to be a fan of the New Orleans Saints, so I have been known to shout "WHO DAT!" once in a while...
    – MT_Head
    Jun 5, 2011 at 0:47
  • @MT_Head The use of who him? or who's him? are fairly common on twitter, though it's hard to tell which utterances are truly "who is he" rather than "who, him?"
    – aedia λ
    Jun 6, 2011 at 16:36
  • @aedia - Thanks for the Twitter search - that actually hadn't occurred to me. And it may well be the deciding factor - although "Who him?" may (or may not - I still don't have an answer for that) be historically accurate and defensible, using it nowadays just makes you sound like a twit. (I'm on Twitter myself, but if any of my tweeps sounded like anyone from the first page of results from that search, I would unfollow them immediately.)
    – MT_Head
    Jun 6, 2011 at 16:42
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I lived in the UK for two years an never heard (or at least noticed) this. However, in 2014's BBC Sherlock, season 3, episode 2, Sherlock says "Who he?" when reviewing wedding invitations with John Watson's fiance. I've watched the episode multiple times, and it is definitely "Who he?" Since Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock is a very "public school" type with a sophisticated speaking style, I wondered if "who he?" might be an accepted form of British English.

1
  • I noticed that too, and wondered whether anyone would dig up my old question and comment on it! By the way, I love the series, and this was my favorite episode yet - you?
    – MT_Head
    Jan 29, 2014 at 19:30

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