For several years, I have heard most young people and some adults use the phrase What happened? when they do not hear what is spoken. It appears to be used where previously several other phrases were used, the most formal being I beg your pardon. (See How do you decide which phrase to use when asking people to repeat what they said?)

My answer to What happened? is usually Were you expecting something to happen? or Was something supposed to happen? I am met with a look of puzzlement or annoyance.

I wonder what the origin of this usage might be. Perhaps it is considered too humiliating to beg someone's pardon? Similar queries may be taken as an admission of fault (not paying attention). Can someone provide some insight?

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    I've never come across this. Sounds weird. Commented Dec 2, 2011 at 3:42
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    I've lived in Texas long enough that my first thought was, "Do what?"
    – MetaEd
    Commented Dec 2, 2011 at 4:45
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    May I ask in which country do you live? I've never heard this in Australia, nor have I ever seen it on TV. Commented Dec 2, 2011 at 4:45
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    I'm wondering if this is just a matter of, say, large-ish social gatherings where several people suddenly start laughing at something someone said. Someone else who didn't hear says "What happened" which allows anyone else to repeat what was said. So the "life and soul of the party" doesn't have to waste his time repeating himself, perhaps. OP mentions the possible "humiliation" of asking for a retake, which seems to me to fit with such a scenario. Commented Dec 2, 2011 at 4:47
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    I've heard this. I think it's a way of playing dumb, or feigning lack of interest. Almost as if the person just woke up, and thought he heard something. Not sure where it comes from, though.
    – JW01
    Commented Dec 2, 2011 at 16:27

5 Answers 5


My impression is that the usage you're talking about occurs when a person doesn't hear what exactly was said, but they have the impression that some sort of story was being told. I hear and use it quite commonly in this specific context, but not as a generic way to ask someone to repeat what they said. Thus, I wouldn't expect this:

Person A: Where is the post office?

Person B: [inaudible]

Person A: *What happened?

But I would expect this:

Person A: How, was your weekend?

Person B: Well, I [rest of sentence inaudible]

Person A: What happened?

Here, A knows that B described events that happened, but doesn't know what they were; hence, "what happened?"

Interestingly, (at least in my experience) there is an intonational difference between "What happened" in this usage and in its traditional usage. Normally, the stress would be on the first syllable of happened ("What HAPpened?") but when used in the "repeat what I didn't hear" sense, the stress is on the what ("WHAT happened?") as if it's an echo question. This difference is important; in my second example above, if person A placed the stress on the first syllable of happened, that would sound strange/wrong. It's only a well-formed response with the stress on what.


I can think of another possibility for coming across the expression. Rather than not being able to catch the answer, you sometimes feel that the person has not responded actively. Either they are evasive or remain silent. In this case, What happened? is common to imply "I asked you something but you don't seem to (bother to) reply. What happened (to my question) (or, to you)? This can be expected more so when the person saying What happened is in a position of authority or superiority.


This is very common among nyc youth. "What happened?" has entirely replaced "excuse me?" or even "what?" It seems to be used in any context where the person did not hear what was being said.


It's a NYC expression - means " repeat please" - has nothing to do with anything that happened.


I got here by googling the first posters questions, so I don't have an answer, but I do have an observation.

I grew up and still live in Los Angeles, and I have noticed all my life that here it's bilingual Latinos that say "What happened?" when they don't hear. This has always bothered me because it's not correct English, but I think I may have just figured it out.

In Spanish, you can either greet someone by saying "Que paso?" obviously very informal) and also ask someone the genuine question of "What happened?" by saying "Que paso?" Since I have heard people say "What's up?" in response to not hearing (and have said it myself), I think perhaps it's just that translation of "What's up?" It's still not proper English, and for me I'd rather have someone say "What's up?" then "What happened?" when they don't hear me, but maybe that's the reason.

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