I saw an American English teacher introducing the phrase, “What’s eating you? in a TV English conversation class this morning by warning audience not to confuse it with the question asking what food you are eating.

As I was unfamiliar with this expression, I consulted with OALD. It registers this as an idiom used to ask what sb is annoyed or worried about.

Wikidictionary defines it an interjection meaning “what is annoying you?”

However, Googlebooks Ngram Viewer doesn’t register “What’s eating you?”

Is “What’s eating you?” a popular phrase both in Britain and United States?

Is it an idiom or interjection as defined by Wikidictionary in the same sense of “Oh my God,” “Look out,” and “Watch it”? To me it looks a plain interrogative sentence.

What is the origin of “What’s eating you?”

  • 1
    Yoichi: In Ngrams, you need to put spaces between words and some punctuation (such as hyphens or question marks), even though it's not correct normally. So instead of What's eating you? you should try What's eating you ? Click here for the result. – Daniel Jul 19 '12 at 2:02
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    @Daniel: Even then, Ngrams don't handle punctuation very well; click here for one example. On the surface, this would lead one to believe that the phrase is followed by "?" more than "!" (which is what we'd expect). Problem is, if you sift through some of the !-results, you'll find most of those end in "?" as well! Something odd about that. – J.R. Jul 19 '12 at 9:51
  • @Daniel I was ignorant of the need to put space before ? when searching in Ngram. By clicking the links you and J.R. game me, I found out that both “what’s eating you? and ! are current, and why Wikidictionary defined it as an interjection (though the incidences of ! end are very low!). English language textbooks don’t teach me how to text in Google Ngram, but English L&U does. I’m appreciative of. – Yoichi Oishi Jul 19 '12 at 21:04
  • @YoichiOishi But note that when you include ? or ! in your search, Ngrams becomes very untrustworthy. I can tell this by looking at the examples it gives me. For instance, when I search for I can see !, and then look at the places in books where it says it found the words, it shows me examples with no ! at all. – Daniel Jul 19 '12 at 21:11
  • @Daniel. True! I saw it! – Yoichi Oishi Jul 19 '12 at 21:29

It's a common (informal) turn of phrase, but I wouldn't call it an interjection. As OP suspects, it's an interrogative sentence. As Tolerance72's revised NGram link suggests, it's somewhat "dated" slang that peaked during the war years for Americans (a couple of decades later for Brits, who often play catchup with American slang).

Note that you can't "transform" it (into "What are you being eaten by?", or "This problem is eating me!", for example), so I guess that in itself makes it an "idiomatic" usage.

So far as "origin" is concerned, I doubt that such a trivial metaphoric usage could really be traced. Here's an instance from 1872 (I imagine there are earlier ones), but it didn't really start to gain traction until the inter-war years.

In the excellent 1993 movie What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) is trapped in a humdrum smalltown existence, his life dominated by caring for his mentally challenged brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio at his very best), and morbidly obese mother.

In fact, Gilbert never actually complains (because he's too "nice"), and he gives few outward signs of being dissatisfied with his lot in life. But that's a slightly unusual context for the phrase - usually it's a question asked of someone who's obviously discontented (often conveying exasperation, rather than genuine concern).

Also note that there is a similar usage "Eat your heart out!", usually followed by someone's name (who may not actually be present to be directly addressed). That one is an exclamation, implying that the named person is/would be crestfallen on learning of something the speaker has just done or discovered (and which casts the named person in a bad light, or contradicts their stated position, for example). I couldn't say for sure whether they share a common origin, but I suspect not.


I believe the question mark in your Ngram search interfered with your results.

See here for the answer you were seeking.

Interestingly, it appears the phrase is undergoing a resurgence.

  • I think it's highly unlikely you could read any significance into that slight upswing in the last decade covered by the chart, but I "borrowed" your link in my answer anyway, because I think you can read some significance in the fact that usage peaked around WW2 (presumably you accept that it declined significantly thereafter, or you wouldn't have used the word "resurgence" in the first place! :) – FumbleFingers Jul 19 '12 at 21:37
  • @FumbleFingers; I'm happy to contribute the link to your answer. My comment on the resurgence was really just a casual aside, but taking a second look at it, I think the slope from 2000-2008 has been quite similar to 1932-1940 (roughly). Yes, it is leveling off a bit more, but still it could go either way. Let's take another look in 10 years :-) – Tolerance72 Jul 19 '12 at 22:05
  • Yeah - slang is notoriously unpredictable. But personally, I half-expect What’s eating you to be followed by buddy?. It absolutely reeks of dated American movies where the characters wear trousers hitched up to their nipples by braces, and constantly trot out words like broad, slammer, dough, swell, etc. – FumbleFingers Jul 19 '12 at 22:13

I have heard it several times, I think broadly represented in UK/US/AU, though I couldn't be 100% sure on that. Generally inquisitative more than interrogative, mostly spoken in a friendly tone, as you would say to a friend feeling down: "What is up with you?"

As to the origin:
When a person is feeling upset about something, but holding it in, the person may look like or even feel like he is being eaten from the inside. A friend noticing this would use the expression to cheer the person up.

Or in a second case when the person is feeling upset about something, but holding it in: At some point that person might burst out in anger or snap at people. Then a friend experiencing this unusual anger would use the expression (in a sharper tone) to calm the person down. Often meaning: "What have I done to deserve your anger?"

  • @Born2Smile. Your reference in the second case remind me of Japanese classic adage,物言わぬは腹ふくるる思い- meaning ‘Being forced to keep silence makes you feel your stomach being bloated to the point of burst.” The phrase was invented by Kenko Yoshida (1283 -1352) who was once a high official of the Emperor’s Court, and descended to a hermit after losing the court’s internal conflict. The phrase appears in his famous essay, 徒膳草- Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness). He might have experienced the feeling of his stomach being eaten by anger. – Yoichi Oishi Jul 19 '12 at 5:18
  • He probably did :) – Born2Smile Jul 19 '12 at 13:28

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