Wonder where is the origin of this phrase? I first heard it on Monty Python. Typical scenario being, a sort of clueless Scotland yard cop enters the scene and asks "alright... what's all this then?"

Since it looked like it was being used satirically in Monty Python, I suspect the origin of it must be older.

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    Most policemen are depicted as saying "'Ello, 'ello, 'ello, what's goin' on 'ere, then?"
    – Andrew Leach
    Jan 13, 2017 at 22:57
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    Yes indeed. But how did that come about?
    – 16tons
    Jan 13, 2017 at 23:16
  • To clarify my question, there is no similar stereotype of American or any other English speaking country cops. So, there must be someplace where this brit cop 'meme' originated from.
    – 16tons
    Jan 13, 2017 at 23:22
  • Quora thinks it's Dixon of Dock Green; I reckon the stereotype is older than that.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jan 14, 2017 at 10:39
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    "What's all this" is an idiom for "what's going on here". Nothing particular remarkable, and there's no reason to believe it has an identifiable (and unique) origin.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 23, 2018 at 23:18

1 Answer 1


The earliest match for the phrase that a Google Books search finds is more than a century old. From Eden Phillpotts, "Quite Out of the Common," in Punch (April 11, 1900):

There followed no immediate response; then three boys assembled under my arch, and they formed a nucleus or focus about which a small crowd of the roughest possible persons, male and female, collected. Last of- all a policeman came also.

"Now then!" he said, "what's all this, then?"

The miserable boys took entire credit to themselves for discovering me perched aloft. They pointed me out and called attention to the Jubbulpore rope dangling from the lamp, and elaborated their own theories.

Very properly the constable paid no attention to them, but addressed all his remarks to me.

"You up there," he asked, "what d'you think you're plyin' at?"

So in 1900 we already have "what's all this, then?" presented as a typical query that a London policeman of modest education might pose to a small crowd that has gathered for no immediately discernible purpose.

I imagine that it originated as a variant of a predictably common constabulary question along the lines of "What's all this commotion [or disturbance or excitement] about?" but I haven't attempted to find historical antecedents of the specific wording that the poster asks about.

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    A good answer to what is a perfectly normal question that is not limited to policemen. “What’s all this, then?” = “What is the nature of all that I am referring to.” The "then" is interesting, OED describes it as "5. (As a particle of inference, often unemphatic or enclitic.) That being the case; ... on that account; therefore, consequently, as may be inferred; so. now then: See "A review of the affairs of France" (1705) *Now tho' this were true, tho' I see no pretended proof of it, yet I may be allow'd to ask "What is all this to what they are out of purse for Catalonia?"
    – Greybeard
    May 14, 2020 at 9:37

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