Google will not tell me where this phrase originates. Does Stack Exchange have the answer?

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    You mean specifically those exact words? What about What have we here? Or even What's this? – FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 23:38
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    Do non-idiomatic phrases even have origins? To me, it just looks like it should be interpreted literally. – user11550 Dec 13 '11 at 23:54
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    Googling around, it seems like it might be an internet meme. – Daniel Dec 14 '11 at 1:18
  • I would also say that 'well, well' is the original which expanded to 'well, well, well'. Also as @FumbleFingers suggests, 'What have we here' is probably the more common phrasing. – Stuart Allen Dec 14 '11 at 2:25
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    This might be a variation on the: "’ello, ’ello, ’ello. What’s going on here then?" that the quintessential British bobby/Plod utters on encountering something suspicious. The Phrase Finder touches on that here but doesn't give any further detail. – Brian Nixon Dec 14 '11 at 4:02

The phrase has been used before, but the meme seems to have taken off in May 2009, according Google Insights. The blue line is "what do we have here", and the others are co-incident "[[well] well] well what do we have here":

Google Insights chart

The map on the page shows the interest in the phrase is predominantly from the USA.

I expect May 2009 seems to be when this motivational poster spoof spread around the internet:

motivational poster

MotiFake ("The ORIGINAL Demotivational Poster Community") says it was created 28th August 2008.

  • What do we have here? – Orion Dec 14 '11 at 9:45

"Well, well, well. What do we have here then?" An old phrase used on occasion by police officers in Great Britain upon the discovery of people engaging in criminal acts. Dates back to the Victorian era.

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    Do you have a reference for this? – zpletan May 7 '12 at 22:14
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    @zpletan Every film/TV policeman from before 1970 – BladorthinTheGrey Dec 9 '16 at 7:34

HAMLET, Act 3 Scene 1 - Shakespeare

I humbly thank you; well, well, well .

  • Well, well (, well) isn't this interesting.... – Alan Carmack Dec 9 '16 at 16:31

It's from The Wizard of Oz (1039), when the Wicked Witch of the West corners Dorothy in her castle.

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    How do you know this was the origin? Put it differently: how would anybody be reading your answer know it is correct or not? – Dan Bron Dec 9 '16 at 11:40
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    I think you mean 1939, not 1039. The film's not that old. – Alan Carmack Dec 9 '16 at 16:29

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