What is the etymology of the informal usage of 'the deal' in phrases like "what's the deal with __?" or in "what's his deal?"

About the word 'deal', etymonline mentions

Business sense of "transaction, bargain" is 1837, originally slang, from the older sense of "arrangement among a number of persons for mutual advantage."

Big deal is from 1928 as "important transaction;" ironic use first recorded 1951 in "Catcher in the Rye."

But only 'big deal' feels related here.

The origin of this usage is interesting to me because it's one of the few ways to informally refer to the whole of a situation or the whole of a persons motivations and situation.

  • I don't have a source for this, but I think it's an abbreviated form of "big deal", and the construction "his deal" is the familiar pattern of slang words evolving beyond their original meaning. If there can be a "deal with something", why can't a person have a "deal"? Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 6:13

2 Answers 2


The expression has a number of variants, Longman Dictionary has:

what's the deal?

American English spoken used when you want to know about a problem or something strange that is happening.

According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang this usage is relatively recent and probably derives from older sense of “deal” meaning issue, problem etc

  1. (US campus) a problem, a conflict.
  • 1990 [US] Eble Campus Sl. Apr. 3: deal – problem: ‘You’re being awfully rude! What’s your deal?’.

  • 2001 [US] Eble Campus Sl. Fall 1: problem, conflict [...] DEAL.


Although Ngram finds earlier instances it is most probably Seinfeld, the U.S. television situation comedy that was among the most popular programs of the 1990s, that made the phrase so popular.

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Mental Floss has an article on it, saying

The phrase, "What's the deal with..." is so synonymous with a specific brand of '90s observational comedy, I bet you just read those words in Jerry Seinfeld's voice.

Although the character only used the phrase sparingly, it was associated with him:

Jerry Seinfeld's association to the phrase "What's The Deal With.." was caused by an SNL sketch he was in mocking Observational Comedians that always say the phrase before a joke. Seinfeld himself rarely said the phrase in his shows and in all 180 episodes of his series he only said it 4 times. (Mental Floss via Reddit)

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