On another SE site, I wrote in a comment

What's in it for X?

(X is a person.) I was asked what this phrase meant. I looked in three online dictionaries of idioms and couldn't find it. It showed up in the urban dictionary as an acronym but I would think a more formal dictionary should have it buried somewhere.

To me, this phrase was a less blunt way of saying

What would X gain from doing your grunt work for you?

I'm looking for a documented definition and usage notes.

(I don't think it's necessary to wade through the question on the other site in order to understand and answer this question.)

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  • "What's in it for X?" is not always as negative as your example, it could be phrased as a genuine question. But it is interesting that "What's in it for" doesn't seem to appear in any online reference. – JeffUK Apr 23 '18 at 12:51
  • It is a common saying in BrE. What's in it for me ? has a very definite meaning of requiring a reward for effort of any kind. The Ngram of 'in it for me' may (or may not) reflect the usage of the whole sentence. – Nigel J Apr 23 '18 at 12:52
  • Please add your research. Even if the research has not proved fruitful, listing (and linking to) the sources you've checked in help others check and/or avoid duplicating grunt work. / Questions not accompanied by reasonable research (fruitful or not) including attributions and links may be closed. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 23 '18 at 13:10
  • @EdwinAshworth - Okay, in future I will list the three I tried. But I wonder if in this case GEdgar would then have skipped the dictionary I tried. He found the phrase by looking with a different pronoun. (Which shows a limitation of that search feature, I suppose.) – aparente001 Apr 23 '18 at 13:14
  • A Google search for << "what's in it for" + meaning >>" gives the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs article as the first hit. And you say you tried OED? Do you mean ODO? – Edwin Ashworth Apr 23 '18 at 13:35

The Free Online Dictionary's entry for What's in it for me?:

Inf. What is the benefit for me in this scheme? Bob: Now that plan is just what is needed. Bill: What's in it for me? What do I get out of it? Sue: We signed the Wilson contract yesterday. Mary: That's great! What's in it for me?

Has a citation from the "McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc." which might be your 'more formal' source.

  • That was one of the ones I looked in. Funny that without the lucky choice of pronoun the search came up empty. Anyway, thank you. – aparente001 Apr 23 '18 at 13:01

The OED has this definition... In the entry for in, definition number IV 25 c .

in it: an advantage (to be received from something). Usu. in phr. what was (or is, etc.) in it for (someone).

The earliest example they show is from 1965.

  • Wish I could give two checkmarks. Both excellent answers, I'm just going by the timestamps. Thank you. – aparente001 Apr 23 '18 at 13:00

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