Where does this expression "what gives" come from? Especially when used as "what's happening?"

2 Answers 2


I would think it's rather probable that it is a calque derived from the perfectly idiomatic German phrase "Was gibt's?". You see? "Was gibt's" <-> "What gives" Pretty close. Don't know why the author of the linked source (Brian Joseph) doesn't see this and only considers "Was gibt es?" which you will rarely hear in colloquial speech.

Instead the e in 'es' is mostly dropped, hence: "Was gibts?"

Although the meaning has deviated a bit apparently. In German it can only mean ~ "what's happening?" / "what do you want (from me)?"

  • Hi Markus - welcome to ELU. I don't think pointing out that Germans usually ellide Was gibt es to Was gibt's adds significantly to existing answers. Though I appreciate that as a new user you may not yet be able to post comments, only answers. Nov 24, 2011 at 19:26
  • Thanks. Yes, in fact I need 50 reputation in order to be able to comment.
    – Machisuji
    Nov 24, 2011 at 21:01
  • Hopefully you'll soon have that rep! Anyway, your post made me realise that my answer here was a bit pointless, in that it added nothing to @Hugo's. We'd answered simultaneously, but at the time I never bothered to follow his link to realise it was the same as mine anyway. If I remember rightly, you even need a certain amount of rep before you can delete your own answer, but luckily I've got that now! Nov 24, 2011 at 21:26
  • 4
    As a side note: If a 'Berliner' were to say "Was gibt's" they could very well say: "Wat gibs" Which is even closer to "what gives". In the Berlin area people speak like that. Das == dat/dit
    – Machisuji
    Nov 25, 2011 at 8:36
  • @Machisuji, "dat/dit" is pretty darn close to Swedish "det" (neuter), which can even be pronounced "dat/dit" in some dialects. May 23, 2018 at 6:48

The etymology is unknown; it is from at least 1940 in American English, and may have come from a calque in German, but there's not much evidence for this. In any case, it's covered in detail by Brian Joseph's What Gives with What Gives?. Here's an excerpt:

The construction seems clearly to have originated in American English; the first attestation for what gives comes in 1940, in John O'Hara's Pal Joey, according to Wentworth and Flexner (1960: 574, s.v. what gives) and the Oxford English Dictionary (1989 on-line second edition).

  • I find the arguments from the linked article pretty weak. I'll accept your answer with the caveat that I find it at least as likely that it is a calque from German. Futher, Brian argues that it's not from Yiddish, fair enough. But were not many Yiddish speakers also good at German? Quote from article: "Rather, colloquial German has was gibt es? 'What is the matter? What's up?', but this is not a suitable source for what gives since the putative calquing did not lead to a direct counterpart to the German subject pronoun es (thus, what gives, not *what gives it or *what does it give)." Apr 17, 2013 at 6:55

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.