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I noticed the phrase “What gives?” in the following lines of the article of Washington Post (August 29) article, titled “Is Ron Paul being ignored?”

“And yet talk to almost anyone in politics — Republicans or Democrats — and the idea of Ron Paul as a top-tier candidate for president is greeted with either a laugh or an eye roll (or both.)

What gives?

Paul appears to be suffering from the “once bitten, twice shy” tendency of the media.”

It appears to me “What gives?” is a common and frequently-used phrase, but I don’t think I’ve seen this phrase so often in written English format like newspaper articles, much less in English textbooks we use. Does it mean “for what (reason)?” or "What is its implication?" What is the spelt-out format of “What gives?”

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  • @Bogdan Lataiau. Thank you for your quick input. I spared the labor to search online dictionaries. Now I got the meaning. How popular is this expression. Does it give odd impression if non-native speaker like me use this phrase to native speakers instead of saying what's wrong? ? Aug 30, 2011 at 3:18

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What gives? means:

Inf. What happened?; What went wrong?; What's the problem?

Bill: Hi, you guys. What gives? Bob: Nothing, just a little misunderstanding. Tom's a little angry.

Bob: Where's my wallet? What gives?

Tom: I think one of those roughnecks who just walked by us has borrowed it for a little while.

According to this page on the linguistics of the phrase, it is not short for anything. There are a few theories about how it arose:

Regarding the issue of why what gives is anomalous, the best that I can offer (speaking now as an historical linguist) is to suggest that we turn to the history of the construction, but even there, full enlightenment is not forthcoming (see Joseph 2000 for more detailed discussion). 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).

Even with this late attestation, what gives makes for an interesting comparison with the German existential use of geben 'to give', in the impersonal form with an expletive subject, es gibt, as in Es gibt keinen Gott 'There is no god', itself anomalous from the point of view of the usual syntax and meaning of geben...

Some scholars however see what gives as having arisen via language contact, as a calque from German, an origin for it which would eliminate a basis for a Proto-West-Germanic prototype, but might allow for a different explanation for the anomalies this expression shows; that is, under such a view, it would show an anomaly because it is a borrowing in the same way that an expression like It goes without saying, calqued from French Ça va sans dire, does, with its unusual passive-like voice semantics for an active form of say. In particular, it has been suggested (Chapman (1986: 463, s.v.); see also Wentworth and Flexner ibid.) that what gives is a loan translation from German or Yiddish was gibt 'What's going on?'.

The site itself has an even more thorough explanation of the phrase. However, it is a phrase on its own, rather than an abbreviation of another phrase. It means "What's happening?" or "What's up?" It is usually informal, though, so you would not see this in formal writing. You can use it in conversation with others, and they will understand you. However, the tone is slightly negative, so be careful when you choose to use it.

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    I think the derivation from Yiddish is extremely plausible. Jun 17, 2014 at 14:20
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I've been living in Germany for 17 years, and this morning the similarity of the phrase "What gives?" to the German "Was gibt's?" occurred to me, so I checked the net ...

The article "What Gives with What Gives?" by Brian Joseph of Ohio State University - also cited above - seems to provide a well founded discussion of the syntax and origin of the phrase in American English. Joseph argues, however, that the German may not be suitable as the origin of the phrase:

… there is no German expression that is simply was gibt! 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).


For all us non-linguists out there, Wikipedia says:

In linguistics, a calque (/ˈkælk/) or loan translation is a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal, word-for-word (Latin: verbum pro verbo) or root-for-root translation.


I believe, however, that his dismissal of the German as a source is flawed, because Joseph is principally arguing from a syntax-of-language standpoint and thus comparing the (written) WORDS instead of the SPOKEN language.

Clearly in a comparison of the SYNTAX of "Was - gibt - es ?" with the English "What - gives ?" the word "it" (="es") is missing in the English. However, back then even more so than today, language is primarily a SPOKEN organism! - and a comparison of the SPOKEN phrases provides a very solid argument for its origin from the German:

In the spoken German phrase "Was gibt es?" the second and third word are slurred together (at least, based on modern-day speech), so that only the "s" of "es" is pronounced (sorry, phonetics here are my best guess):

/vasɡiːpts/ and /vasɡɪpts/ (normally written out with an apostrophe: "Was gibt's")

In comparison to the English "What gives?", we can see (or rather hear) that the transition from the German to English comprises the translation of "Was" to "what" and the minimal change in the consonant sounds /pts/ to /vz/.

The final /s/ in the German becomes the third person inflection "(it) gives" in the English. In other words the word "it" IS implicitly present in the English, but as an inflection of the verb instead of as an extra word.


Wikipedia to the rescue again! Wikipedia explains that:

Calquing is distinct from phono-semantic matching.[3] While calquing includes semantic translation, it does not consist of phonetic matching (i.e. retaining the approximate sound of the borrowed word through matching it with a similar-sounding pre-existent word or morpheme in the target language).

and

Phono-semantic matching (PSM) is a linguistic term referring to camouflaged borrowing in which a foreign word is matched with a phonetically and semantically similar pre-existent native word/root.


So, to summarize:

I argue that the phrase "what gives?" likely originates from the German "Was gibt's?", and transitioned to English primarily due to the phono-semantic match of the two phrases, and that the transition can be described as a calque in so far as the "it" is implied in the presence of the third person singular inflection /s/.

I would be gratified if a linguist would take my argument further, and reiterate it using the correct phonetics.


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  • I fixed the IPA for "Was gibt's". Note, that there are two common pronunciations, the more formal one with a long eee-sound and the more common short variant. Rollback my edit, if you disagree.
    – Em1
    Jun 17, 2014 at 10:11
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As already observed, What gives? may well be derived from German Was gibt es via the more common contracted form Was gibt's?. As a native speaker of German who has spent some years in English-speaking countries I consider this particularly convincing because contrary to first impressions the uses of What gives? and Was gibt's? do actually overlap, and the overlap is in a kind of situation in which German speakers would be particularly likely to take such shortcuts as leaving out the it in an English sentence because the verb already ends in s.

In German, Was gibt es? / Was gibt's is a neutral way of asking: What's going on? / What's up? But it is also something a drunk person is likely to say when feeling slighted by someone and trying to start a fight without really knowing why. (Of course there are also alternatives, such as Was ist los?) In this situation the question may well be repeated several times, and invariably in the contracted form Was gibt's rather than the long form Was gibt es?.

(By the way, in northern Germany people are less likely to use the contraction, but instead they are likely to say wat instead of was: Wat gibt es? This is intriguing, though I doubt that it played an important role.)

So I imagine a drunk, agitated German speaker in the US. Under the circumstances he may be mixing up and simplifying German and English phonetics:

"Was hast du gesagt? Whas did you say? ... Was gib's? Was gib's? Was gib's?"

I think it would be natural for a native English speaker addressed in this way to remember the mysterious question as What gives? Or indeed the German speaker may say What gives? himself in his attempt to speak English.

(I think it would have been more proper to upvote the other answer and add a short comment to it than make this a separate answer, but apparently both actions require 'reputation'.)

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  • Thanks for the reputation, but it wasn't me who answered. I simply edited the other question; as I just edited yours to remove this mistake.
    – Em1
    Jul 26, 2014 at 10:23
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Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yinglish (1989) claims "What gives" as a characteristic element of what he calls "Yinglish" (hybridized English/Yiddish or Yiddish-inflected English):

What gives?

This is a stellar addition to the colloquial phrases of conversational Yinglish. From Yiddish: Vi geyt's?" "How goes it?" Via German: Was gibt?

  1. What's going on there?
  2. What's new?
  3. What's the matter? What's wrong?
  4. Tell me the whole story.

As the multiple definitions in Rosten's account indicate, people use "What gives?" can be used in a number of distinct senses. But the most common ones in my experience are "What's going on?" (asked curiously or querulously) and "What's wrong?" (asked sympathetically).

According to Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997), "what gives" can also mean "how are you":

The last variant [of "what's cooking"], what gives, may derive from the German equivalent, Was gibt's? Slang from about 1940, it is also used to mean, "how are you," as in Hello, Jack—what gives?

As simchona's answer indicates, Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner have a detailed entry for "What gives?" in Dictionary of American Slang, first edition (1960):

What gives? 1 A common greeting. 2 "What's happening?" "What did I do to make you say or do that?" [Cross reference omitted.] 3 = What's new? Perhaps a lit. translation of the Ger. "was ist los?" 1939: "What gives, I asked her...." O'Hara, Pal Joey, 43. 1949: "What gives?' he croaked in an annoyed tone." Chandler, Little Sister, 21.

The instance from John O'Hara's Pal Joey appeared under the title "Joey and the Calcutta Club" in The New Yorker (March 30, 1940) [combined snippets]:

So Quinn asked me to join them and I did and this mouse with them named Jean Benedict looks like 10000 other dames on the line of some Bway show except when she opens her trap she has an accent that is so British even Sir Nevile Chamberlin would not be able to understand her. I knew she was strictly U.S.A. by appearance but the accent is so good I think what is the angle. What gives, I asked her, altho not in so many words. I inquired how she happen to have the accent and she said a lot of people inquire of her the same thing and it is easily explained. She is half American and her father is British.

And from Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister (1949):

He made a grab for the glass [of gin, freshly poured by Marlowe]. I put it on the table in front of him. He grasped it carefully in both hands and poured the gin into his face. Then he laughed heartily and threw the glass at me. I managed to catch it and up-end it on the table again. The man looked me over with a studied but unsuccessful attempt at sternness.

"What gives?" he croaked in an annoyed tone.

"Manager?"

He nodded and almost fell off the couch. "Must be I'm drunky," he said. "Kind of a bit of a little bit drunky."

"You're not bad," I said. "You're still breathing."

Somewhat surprisingly, the earliest match that a separate Google Books search finds for the expression is from Elizabeth Kata, Be Ready with Bells & Drums (1961):

"Is that you. Paul?" Gordon asked.

'But of course. Excuse me for asking, Dad, but what gives? What gives out there with Orphan Annie, with little Eva. With your—friend—so I'm told. You care to tell me what gives, Dad? Honoured older brother, you mind telling me about this friend of yours?'

...

'It's nice to know you care. I'm glad you love me, Dad.' I heard them laughing together. It was fine to hear brothers laughing together. Paul went on speaking.

'You're evading the issue—I don't like any issue being evaded. What gives with li'l Eva? Who, what, when, where, and for Pete's sake, why? Why?'

In this dialogue, "Dad" appears to be beatnik talk for "friend" or "pal." Kata was an Australian novelist, not an American; but the usage of "what gives" in this excerpt mirrors U.S. usage.

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