What does the phrase "What in carnation" mean in the following sentence?

What in carnation are you saying?

Does the speaker mean "What are you saying about?" in the sentence above?

I googled for half an hour, but I got different meanings for this.

  • 10
    I think what you're hearing is "What in tarnation" – Andrew Leach Dec 24 '15 at 12:31
  • No, its "what in C arnation"? – Amit Verma Dec 24 '15 at 12:36
  • 5
    Then what it means is that you have a malapropism for "tarnation". thefreedictionary.com/tarnation en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malapropism – Jeff Y Dec 24 '15 at 12:38
  • 1
    What was the scene of the movie about? What was the answer? – user98955 Dec 24 '15 at 12:52
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    I have on one or two occasions heard "what in carnation" as an intentional malapropism, and may have even said it myself. It would be a clever turn of phrase in, eg, a flower shop (or, for that matter, a funeral parlor). But ultimately the meaning is the same as "what in tarnation". – Hot Licks Dec 24 '15 at 13:48

I am pretty certain that either (a) you misheard/misread this, or (b) the speaker/writer was mistaken or joking.

Or double-joking, really. 'What in tarnation?' is (to the best of my knowledge) a now-outdated exclamation meaning something close to 'What the hell?' I have only ever encountered it in Western narratives, where it seems only to be used light-heartedly to mark the speaker as an old-timer.

'Tarnation' seems to be euphemistic in the first place, a derivation of 'damnation' (possibly by way of 'darnation', as in 'darn it!').

So, saying 'What in carnation?' seems likely to be a play on a play on a euphemism. In any case, I am fully convinced that it has no literal meaning in its own right. Its status in your encounter with it rather depends on intention and reception.


Accounts of tarnation's general origin all seem to agree. Merriam-Webster (for example) is particularly succinct on the matter, and also mentions one source in James Joyce, who was Irish by birth (and fiendishly well-read), so my broad association of this expression with the Old West might be a little narrow.

I can find no grounds anywhere for regarding 'carnation' in this context as anything but a joke (by the film's writers) or a mistake (by either the writers, or more likely the transcriber).

  • 2
    Incidentally (and surprisingly pertinently, at least to my answer), I once came across a game (New York Times, I think) that involved changing one letter in a word and then redefining it. My favourite entry, and the only one I still remember, was reintarnation, which was defined as 'coming back to life as a hillbilly'. – Captain Cranium Dec 24 '15 at 12:44
  • I saw it in my Tv in a movie, there they show texts of conversations on the screen – Amit Verma Dec 24 '15 at 12:44
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    Ahh, closed captioning as gospel. Yikes. :-) – Jeff Y Dec 24 '15 at 12:47
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    Then my best guess remains either joke or error. It might be an intentionally comical line in that movie: the character either unknowingly gets 'tarnation' wrong, or knowingly replaces it with 'carnation' for some reason. Otherwise, perhaps whoever created the subtitles had never come across 'tarnation' so just innocently typed what they thought they heard, and ended up with 'carnation'. – Captain Cranium Dec 24 '15 at 12:51
  • I'd wager to say that the closed captioning folks got it wrong. I see that type of thing all the time - particularly for uncommon words. – Kristina Lopez Dec 24 '15 at 15:23

Whoever asked about hearing the phrase, "What in carnation," unfortunately, you have heard people misusing/mistaking the phrase. It is actually "What in tarnation?..." meaning "WTF!?!" or What the hell! It expresses shock, wonder, surprise, amazement etc

  • 2
    Expressions often undergo whimsical transmogrifications. This could have been intended by the speaker. Or it might have been misheard. Or a mistake by the speaker (unlikely). But please don't repeat answers already given. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 13 at 20:29

It’s not a mistake. English speakers say “WHAT IN CARNATION” to mean what in this world or life!? Usually the next words are “do you mean”

Carnation seems to be some reference to being flesh To being incarnated in the flesh Carnation being this place and us the flesh in it I also don’t see a good definition for it online so it must be slang (?)


My guess (yes, guess) is that What in tarnation is a euphemism for What in Creation.

(And not for What in darnation or What in damnation.)

  • I’d guess it is a shortening of “What in eternal damnation” Tarnation from tarnal -> eternal. – Jim Jan 13 at 21:32
  • @jim: That makes sense to me. As comments can be deleted anytime, consider adding that as an answer. (Then I'll delete my answer, in which case these comments will also be deleted.) – Drew Jan 13 at 22:02

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