I have a character who is a very old gentleman who never uses colorful language. He has received such a shock that the phrase "what the fuck?" would be appropriate, but it just won't work for him. Any suggestions?

closed as too broad by oerkelens, Glorfindel, Cascabel, choster, Edwin Ashworth Jun 15 '17 at 21:23

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • "My goodness. What on earth?" Or "What in the world was that?" – CalvT Jun 15 '17 at 19:09
  • "What in the—?" – Khuldraeseth na'Barya Jun 15 '17 at 19:14
  • 2
    Good golly! Or the highly literary god's nightgown! Or the bible verse Jesus wept. Really, there are too many to choose from, I don't see this question inviting anything but a rather boring list of snowclones and pejorative interjections. – oerkelens Jun 15 '17 at 19:16
  • See Wikipedia, "Minced Oath." There's also Jumpin' Jehosophat, which might be old-fashioned enough to suit your character. – Xanne Jun 15 '17 at 19:27
  • You don't give enough context. Is this American English or British English? What time period (i.e., late 19th century, the present, when) ? – ab2 Jun 15 '17 at 20:44

I would suggest something like:

What On Earth???

My grandparents (who speak very properly and could be said to never swear) often use this when shocked.

The Cambridge Dictionary states that the phrase is used for showing surprise which fits with your requirements. It also gives the example What on earth is going on here?

The graph below (borrowed from this excellent post) shows with data from COHA that "What the fk" has somewhat been replacing "what on earth" in the spoken language.



"Sweet Mother of Pearl!" (Mother of Pearl is the iridescent layer on the inside of an oyster. This is a way of avoiding the blasphemy of "Mother of God!")

"What the Hades?" (Hades is the Greek lord of the underworld and ruler of the dead. This is akin to saying "What the Hell?")

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