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I found the phrase in the article of the Time magazine (July 6 issue) dealing with the Casey Anthony Verdict, under the title, The Casey Anthony Verdict The Jury Did the Right Thing.

And yet, why would Anthony kill her daughter? When Caylee died in 2008, her mother was young and blithe, 22 going on 16. Anthony lived with her parents, dated lots of guys and wasn't thrilled about having to care every day for a 2-year-old. And so she chloroformed the girl? Or duct-taped her face?

I know Casey Anthony was 22 when her 2-years old daughter was killed, but I have no idea about “going on 16.” What does it mean? “Is the phrase, “going on 16” understood without question to any native English speakers?

9

The usual, humorous, phrase is like this:

My daughter is 16, going on 32!

It simply means she is precocious. She is only 16, but she already behaves in a very mature way. So in the usual phrase, the age difference goes upwards. Another example, "My kindergarten kid is 5 going on 10!"

That's the usual direction of the joke. But here, the author here is deliberately turning it around the other way.

So indeed the author is expressing that the woman is 22 but behaves immaturely.

To understand this usage:

In English commercial writing, in the present day, there is a fad to take an existing humorous phrase, and "turn it around". The idea is that it (supposedly) sounds even more witty when reversed. You could say this is an "overused trick" in English commercial writing today. The example at hand is precisely an example of that process.

(Note: as Robusto explains, "going on" very simply means "almost". For example, "to walk to the store is five, going on six, miles", "renovation costs are 80 thousand, going on 90 thousand.")

So, to get the entire feel of the passage in English relies on the following chain:

1) "Going on" means "almost": the child is six going on seven. That sentence simply means "almost seven".

2) Very commonplace humorous use of "going on" with a large gap going upwards, used specifically of precocious children: that girl is 15 going on 35!

3) In this case, the author has "turned around" that usual humorous pattern: "the person is 35 going on 15". Note again that it is common (today) in commercial English to invert a common humorous construction, to create a (supposedly) even funnier one.

By the way, the phrase Sixteen Going on Seventeen is indeed one of the handful of most famous "showtunes" in all of English, 1965,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwK_WOXjfc0

(immortal performance in the film by Charmian Carr) So that song was written by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers (the two most famous "showtunes" era composers) and it's one of the songs in The Sound of Music (far and away the most popular musical show and film in English).

So, for any English speaker, whenever you say or hear the phrase "16 going on 17" (much as with "do-a-deer", "brown paper packages" "edelweiss" and indeed others from the same show) it associates instantly with the song.

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    Please stop putting every second word in bold. Also, throwing in a "You get it?", "You see?", "Do you understand?" after every other sentence is completely uncalled for. It's pure noise that steals everybody's time and comes off as extremely condescending. Thank you. – RegDwigнt Jul 7 '11 at 9:21
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    This is not a site for ongoing dialogues. Every post must be able to stand on its own. And every post must adhere to certain standards. Eccentricities should be reserved for chat. On the main site, you are expected to follow a few very simple rules everyone else has to follow, too. – RegDwigнt Jul 7 '11 at 9:41
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    It's a stack site, if you don't like the post - go and edit it. If second age is lower than first = immature, if higher = boring/middle aged. – adolf garlic Jul 7 '11 at 10:18
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    @Adolf: People did try to improve the post, in point of fact. Look at the edit history. – RegDwigнt Jul 7 '11 at 13:47
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    @adolf garlic - I'll offer a suggestion from someone who's made a lot of mistakes in comments: Any time you find yourself tempted to instruct someone with the moderator diamond next to their name about how SO sites work, you might want to stop for a minute and gather a bit more info. – T.E.D. Jul 7 '11 at 17:58
46

It means she was young and immature. The phrase "going on" means nearing in age.

My daughter is six going on seven.

This means she is almost seven.

If the gap is wide, it suggests either that she is precocious (18 going on 30) or immature (22 going on 16).

Joe Blow has covered a lot of this already, but I feel it is important to emphasize that this phrase comes from a standard, literal usage meaning "getting close to [in age]".

30

To be "going on" a particular age means to be nearly that age. It's usually used in reference to the next age up, when it's nearly your birthday; that is, a 15-year-old would be "going on 16" when their birthday is near, perhaps within the next month or so.

Alternatively, you might say you are "going on" the next age to emphasize that it's going to happen soon, even if it's not really that soon: a child who just turned 15 might be described as "going on 16" if we're discussing how worried we are about how she'll be able to get her driver's license soon at 16.

A famous use of this is in the 1959 song "Sixteen Going on Seventeen", where Liesl sings about how she's nearly grown up.

So, "she was young and blithe, 22 going on 16" is not the normal way this phrase would be used, but it's likely understandable for native speakers as meaning: she was actually 22, but acted as if she were about to be only 16 years old. "Young and blithe" would serve to reinforce this meaning, because blithe can mean:

2 . Indifferent, careless, showing a lack of concern.

  • GMTA on Charmain Carr... – Fattie Jul 6 '11 at 22:13
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    +1 for getting the point across succinctly, and still finding space for links to both the song and that crucial meaning of "blithe". – FumbleFingers Jul 7 '11 at 0:14
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    I wonder if "blithe," which is not regularly used, was chosen because of its similarity to "lithe" (supple, thin, graceful) – horatio Jul 7 '11 at 17:28
  • @Horatio - I believe so. "Young and lithe" is a fairly common phrase. The "Blithe" I believe was meant to be a clever and noticeable turn of the phrase. – T.E.D. Jul 7 '11 at 17:51
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    @Yoichi-san, perhaps this will help: when I think of "blithe", the two meanings aren't entirely separate, I think. I imagine someone wrapped up in their own enjoyment, ignorant of surroundings, without a care for how the world around them is affected. A bit like "happy-go-lucky": they may have a good time but are not prepared for the future. A worrywart might judge that too much of this blithe attitude is a bad thing :) – aedia λ Jul 8 '11 at 0:20
4

The other answers are correct, but for the sake of completeness, most English speakers would not recognize "goes on 16" or "go on 16". I don't know how the phrase came about, but it seems to always be of the the form going on X and to mean nearing X.

The idiom can also be used for nearing other things besides age:

going on,

a. nearly; almost: It's going on four o'clock.

I can't think of an example of "going on" anything but a numeric time, however. "Going on lunch" doesn't seem correct, for some reason.

The phrase can also be used to mean at least two other things, according to Dictionary.com:

b. happening: What's going on here?

c. continuing; lasting: That party has been going on all night.

  • An excellent point, there are numerous questions on here referring to 'going on', which does point as to how this phrase is so misunderstood. – Christopher Dec 15 '15 at 22:05
  • Of course there are trivial, mundane, non-idiomatic usages: “I’m going to visit my Grandmother for the holidays.” / “Oh; how are you going?” / “I’m going on the train.”  … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …  But seriously, I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned the song “Sixteen Going On Seventeen”, from The Sound of Music, in which Liesl is approximately 16 years and 10 months old (16 going on 17), while her boyfriend Rolf is approximately a year older (17 going on 18). – Scott Dec 22 '15 at 7:08

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