I recently heard shut up used according to this definition in Urban dictionary.

shut·up (shuht-up) --interjection 1. An expression of disbelief. 2. Amazement; astonishment.

I've only heard it used in a few movies (The Princess Diaries and in an episode of Dr. Who for example). What is the etymology of this idiomatic phrase? I'm particularly curious as to when and in what country this use originated and in what circles is it used. Also, is there a proper or expected response to the phrase in conversation?

  • sounds like ValSpeak to me. Commented Jun 16, 2011 at 3:56
  • @Joel: Sounds like Elaine to me. ;)
    – MrHen
    Commented Jun 16, 2011 at 12:56
  • 1
    Note that the "expression of amazement" form of "shut up" is marked by a pronounced pause between the words: "Shut. Up." And the word "up" is usually drawn out to two syllables, with rising intonation on the first half. This is different from the imperative form: "shaddap."
    – The Raven
    Commented Jun 16, 2011 at 13:34
  • @The Raven: There isn't always a pause, but I agree with the rising-falling intonation on the second word.
    – Charles
    Commented Jun 16, 2011 at 15:41
  • @MrHen Did Elaine use the phrase? I may be the only American who didn't watch Seinfeld. Would you say it's as much in use in the USA as in Britain? @The Raven and @Charles I've heard it with the pause but didn't notice the inflection on the second word. Thanks.
    – Spare Oom
    Commented Jun 16, 2011 at 22:56

3 Answers 3


It's an evolution of other imperatives that could also be used to express surprise or disbelief, such as "don't joke around", or in slang "stop fooling" or "quit joshing". While these statements are commands, the implication is that the speaker believes he is being deceived in jest. If the listener were to obey the speaker's request, they'd stop talking, or "shut up", hence the introduction of the command as a similar expression of disbelief.

  • This explains part of the question, but I also wondered about the country of origin. I'll probably choose this answer if I don't find out anything about the country of origin.
    – Spare Oom
    Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 22:27
  • The country of origin for the term as an expression of disbelief is likely the U.S.; however, the term as an imperative command is British, dating back in its current form at least to Kipling.
    – KeithS
    Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 22:43
  • The age of the imperative command doesn't really relate to my question. I was asking specifically about the slang use.
    – Spare Oom
    Commented Jun 22, 2011 at 19:43
  • does not even guess at an answer to the question
    – Fattie
    Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 7:21

from wikipedia

An alternative modern spoken usage is to express disbelief, or even amazement. When this (politer) usage is intended, the phrase is uttered with mild inflexion to express surprise. The phrase is also used in an ironic fashion, when the person demanding the action simultaneously demands that the subject of the command speak, as in "shut up and answer the question". The usage of this phrase for comedic effect traces at least as far back as the 1870s, where the title character of a short farce titled "Piperman's Predicaments" is commanded to "Shut up; and answer plainly". Another seemingly discordant use, tracing back to the 1920s, is the phrase "shut up and kiss me", which typically expresses both impatience and affection.

  • The ironic use traces as far back as the 1870s, but that doesn't seem to answer the question of where its use to express disbelief or amazement originates.
    – Spare Oom
    Commented Jun 16, 2011 at 12:06
  • The wikipedia quote beyond the first two sentences is irrelevant to the OP's situation. Here, 'shut up' is more of a reaction in disbelief at what someone has said, and so telling the messenger of truth to not say it. It's often ironic in that the message is actually a good thing, so 'shut up ' is expressing a bit of misdirection.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 16, 2011 at 13:51

Print dictionaries

I expect it's much older, but "Shut up!" expressing disbelief is defined in the following US slang dictionaries from the 2000s.

First, A Concise Collection of College Students' Slang (2004) by Xin-An Lu:

Shut Up (interj): 1. expression meaning to be quiet; often given as a command. Shut up! Do you ever stop talking? 2. phrase expressing surprise or disbelief. You really got tickets to the concert? Shut up!

The preface details the source:

All contributors to this work are young college students in my Spring classes, 2004, at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.

Next, The Little Hiptionary: The Slanguage Dictionary That Tells It To You Straight Up (2007) by Ruth Cullen:

shut up interj 1: an expression of incredulity or disbelief meaning “no way” or “you've got to be kidding me” You won the lottery and you're moving to Hawaii? Shut up! 2: a phrase that means "be quiet," to "shut your mouth" Would you all kindly shut up? I'm trying to watch the news.

Finally, Barron's American Slang Dictionary and Thesaurus (2009) by Mary Elizabeth:

Shut Up!2 |shut UP| excl Initial expression of disbelief in what one has been told, but often suggests that the hearer is open to convincing. USAGE INFO: This use of shut up, if said with appropriate tone and body language, will not cause offense.

Interesting to see that it's the second definition in 2004 and 2009, but the first in 2007.

Online dictionaries

The earliest definition with this meaning on Urban Dictionary is from May 2003 and currently the third most popular:

Expression of incredulity. Similar to "no way" or "Wow, I can't fucking belive it"

What? My lazy ex got a job? Shut up!

by bob May 20, 2003

The Online Slang Dictionary (American, English, and Urban slang) also has it from January 2003, although it's since been edited:

shut up

  • used to indicate surprise or doubt.

You're 29 years old, Robbie? Shut up! You don't look a day older than 23!

Last edited on Jul 24 2011. Submitted by Anonymous on Jan 09 2003.

Earlier examples

Of course, for dictionaries to include a term, it had to have already been in use. The Wall Street Journal reported about this use on May 1, 2003 in "Amused? Want to Hear More? One Term Says It All: 'Shut Up!'" reported on its mainstreaming and sheds some more light on its origin. Some extracts:

Not too many years ago, the unrude use of "Shut up!" might have baffled linguists and just about everybody else. But the term has now made its way from schoolgirl chatter to adult repartee and into movies and advertising. People use it as much to express disbelief, shock and joy as to demand silence. In some circles, it has become the preferred way to say "Oh my God!" "Get out of town!" and "No way!" all at once.


Shut up! is the latest example of a linguistic phenomenon called amelioration, whereby a word or phrase loses its negative associations over time. A classic example is "nice," which meant "stupid" up through the 13th century. Recent flip-flops include "bad" (as in good) and "dope" (as in great). "Words that were once considered rude are now included in regular conversation, but in a context that lets you know it's not impolite," says Connie Eble, professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of "Slang and Sociability." "They become so generalized that the shock value wears off."

Words with rich semantic connotations "typically have the possibility to mean their opposite when used in an ironic or joking context," adds Bert Vaux, an associate professor of linguistics at Harvard University.


More recently, children's author Meg Cabot has given the phrase a literary twist. Her title character in "The Princess Diaries" favors it to express geeky teenage delight. Disney screenwriters were so fond of the princess's breezy use of the term that they wove it prominently into the movie adaptation. "Shut up!" even landed in the promotional trailer for the film. "I've had a lot of letters from parents thanking me sarcastically for introducing 'shut up!' to their kids' vocabulary," says Ms. Cabot.

The origins of the newest usage have fueled some debate. Ms. Cabot says she picked it up a few years ago from schoolgirls on Manhattan's Lower East Side. An earlier adopter of the phrase was the character Elaine on "Seinfeld." In a 1992 episode written by Larry David called "The Pez Dispenser," Jerry tells a story about a man who splashed Gatorade on his head, got pneumonia and dropped dead. Elaine responds: "Shut up!" In subsequent episodes, Elaine tells people to "Shut up!" all the time -- but she really means it. Writers had her intone the hip version just twice, according to Paul McFedries, a language writer and founder of the online site "The Word Spy" who has studied the complete body of Seinfeld scripts.

The Princess Diaries film was released in August 2001 and was based on the first The Princess Diaries book, published in October 2000.

Here's an extract of "The Pez Dispenser" from Seinfeld, first broadcast on January 15, 1992, showing the story continues even after the ironic "Shut up!":

JERRY: You know I thing Kramer might have been responsible for getting Richie involved with drugs in the first place.

ELAINE: What? How?

JERRY: A few years ago the comedy club had a softball team. Kramer was our first baseman You couldn't get anything by him. It was unbelievable. Anyway this one game we came back to win from like 8 runs behind. So Kramer says to Richie why don't you dump the bucket of Gatorade on Marty Benson's head? The club owner. So Richie goes ahead and does it.

ELAINE: So? What happened?

JERRY: What happened? The guy was like 67 years old, it was freezing out, he caught a cold, got pneumonia, and a month later he was dead.

ELAINE: Shut up!

JERRY: All the comedians were happy. He was one of these club owners nobody liked anyway. But Richie was never the same.

ELAINE: What about Kramer?

JERRY: He's the same!

You can watch the scene here, starting from around 10m20s.

  • The earliest date you mentioned here was 2003. The movie The Princess Diaries was from 2001. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Princess_Diaries_(film) Does anyone have an earlier example?
    – Spare Oom
    Commented Mar 20, 2013 at 19:56
  • @SpareOom: I've added a 2000 and 1992.
    – Hugo
    Commented Mar 21, 2013 at 14:26
  • Thanks for the Seinfeld excerpt. 1992 is the earliest usage I've seen.
    – Spare Oom
    Commented Mar 25, 2013 at 23:51
  • This Glossary of Eighties Terms says Shut Up! means "Not believable.", but there's no citation.
    – Hugo
    Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 15:57

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