I've had a question from an English language student who is reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

He has a problem understanding what 'well-a-well' means in the following quote. I've searched and can't find anything online.

Has anyone come across this before? Do we interpret is as just a colloquial form of 'well' as introducing a point. Is it used in contemporary US? (I'm British). I did say to the student that maybe it would be better to read a book from the 20th or 21st century but I would still like to go back to him with some information if possible.

Every time I let him off, my conscience does hurt me so, and every time I hit him my old heart almost breaks. Well-a-well, man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble, as the Scripture says, and I reckon it's so.

Thank you.

  • 1
    As far as I know, it's not used in contemporary AmE. Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 12:16
  • Welcome to EL&U! A good question. I would have interpreted it as "oh well", but I couldn't be sure. Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 12:31

2 Answers 2


The OED attributes this now rare construct to Scottish and Irish English (northern) with the sense of 'expressing surprise, anticipation, resignation, or acquiescence'. It gives among several examples:

The old woman tried to comfort her, beginning with her accustomed, ‘Well-a-well!’ (Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton, 1848) and Tam simply wad say, ‘Weel-a-weel, I'll jist by your counsel be guided.’ (David Willox, Poems, 1898).


It can be reconstructed from the context as an exclamation (blend): 'Well, well (, well)!'

Here is an example from Cambridge Dictionary:

'He's decided to give up his job and move to Seattle with her." "Well, well - that's what love does for you."

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