"Oh well" is an interjection used to express acquiescence or resignation towards an undesirable event which has occurred (maybe this isn't the most precise definition, but I think most native English speakers know what it means.).

What is the history of this phrase?

A remark: it would sound more logical for it to be "all well" rather than "oh well", because the former would reaffirm that all is still well in spite of whatever bad has occurred.

  • 2
    Logical? Since when does logic have a say in how language works?
    – Robusto
    Dec 15, 2016 at 1:47
  • 1
    Both "oh" and "well" are "uh" interjections, used to buy time and fill dead air. Somehow, aeons ago, they got joined at the hip and acquired the meaning c'est la vie, que sera sera, et al. One might hypothesize that the "well" is an aborted phrase such as "well that's life" or some such.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 15, 2016 at 1:49
  • 1
    I guess the "oh" has the same "meaning" as in many other interjections such as "oh, hell"" or "oh, fudge".
    – bof
    Dec 15, 2016 at 11:28
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because "Oh well" is a filler, a discourse marker that does not have a well-defined or distinct origin.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 17, 2017 at 18:29
  • @Mari-LouA, wouldn't that be an answer to the question?
    – fixer1234
    Mar 17, 2017 at 20:40

2 Answers 2


Alone, "well" has been used as a discourse marker for all of English history. However, "oh well" doesn't seem to be as old. The oldest citation for "oh well" in OED is 1582:

O well quoth Samson, if yee had not plowed with my heyfer, that is, vsed the helpe of my wife, yee had not founde out my redell.
T. Bentley Seuenth Lampe Virginitie in Sixt Lampe Virginitie 299

It is also relevant to note that the nearly identical expression "ah well" is likely older, as the earliest OED citation is from 1534:

Hem, numnam perijmus? Ah wel, are we not in yl case trowe we?
N. Udall Floures for Latine Spekynge gathered oute of Terence f. 16


I always heard it resonate in England as

Oh well if that is the case.

Oh well it could have been far worse.

Oh well I did not know that.

Oh well you came to the right place.

If you where to use well to mean

All is well

Than it simply does not fit into how or why we use this phrase.

It is used as more a way of saying that you understand events and you have accepted them. Usually after someone else has enlightened you to the new course of events.

The 'Well' is more like in these phrases.

Well I will see to it straight away.

Well I won't be going home soon.

Well who knows what the right answer would have been.

I don't know allot about the history, but I think this is somewhat of an emotional expression that is probably older than writing or language itself.

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