Whilst reading Thomas Hobbes' 'Leviathan' I encountered several titular sections (among many) that employed a strange use of 'what'; where a section title consisted of a topic, followed by 'what'. Some examples, appear below:

  • "Right of nature what"
  • "Liberty what"
  • "A law of nature what"

I've never encountered 'what' used in this way so would this perhaps be a particular grammatical use of 'what' idiosyncratic to Hobbes? I'd venture to guess that if this was some form of personally intelligible notation, that Hobbes used it in the capacity to denote What is Right of nature' in short form. I may be wrong though.

If what I surmised isn't the case, perhaps this is actually an archaic use of 'what' consistent with the standard grammatical conventions of the time and intellible to a broader public? Or, may this have just been a printing error, or even idiosyncratic notation particular to a printer/publisher?

  • These are all highly condensed formulations of the topics of particular passages, and are not meant to be grammatically complete sentences. Hobbes' practice here is not very different from the standard present-day practice of bending the rules of grammar in headlines.
    – jsw29
    Aug 6, 2022 at 20:55

1 Answer 1


From reading the text, it seems that there is nothing unusual in the use of the word what, which Hobbes uses over 600 times. In these section titles, he is simply abbreviating “what it is” or “what they are.” He’s providing a definition of the words, and he considered definitions important, as this excerpt shows:

Seeing then that Truth consisteth in the right ordering of names in our affirmations, a man that seeketh precise Truth, had need to remember what every name he uses stands for; and to place it accordingly; or els he will find himselfe entangled in words, as a bird in lime-twiggs; the more he struggles, the more belimed.

Given that this was first published in 1651, it’s surprising to me that it’s so close to today’s English.

  • 1
    I've gone through the text, and I agree that he uses this form for definitions. It is akin to the head word convention in indexes, where in modern usage we would use a comma. Where he writes Justice and Injustice what, we would write Justice and Injustice, what is
    – djs
    Aug 10, 2022 at 22:52
  • I don't see how a reading of the text renders this, or any other, antiquated locution as less unusual. Surely, the examples given by the OP are unusual, even if you understand them, and even if Hobbes used them hundreds of times. In our time, 2022, these locutions are unusual.
    – Pound Hash
    Aug 13, 2022 at 20:44

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