13

"What ho!" - this strange form of greeting is used all the time by Bertie Wooster, a character of well-known "Jeeves and Wooster" stories by P. G. Wodehouse.

Bertie Wooster: Oh, what ho, Sir Watkyn!

Sir Watkyn Bassett: Kindly do not address me in that familiar way, Wooster. I happen to know that once again you've yielded to the awful temptation to steal a policeman's helmet! .....

Bertie Wooster: Aunt Dahlia! What ho, old blood relation!

Aunt Dahlia: [affectionately] Hello, Bertie, revolting young blot.

What does "ho" mean in such expressions? Is it a word reduction or an idiom?

8
  • 2
    There's also "Right-ho" he uses. One of the books is titled "Right-ho, Jeeves!". Sep 26, 2012 at 2:02
  • 1
    Some of these unfathomable expressions are said to have been those of King George ll, a Hanoverian who could not speak English well. He would use silly-sounding phrases like 'Hey-what'. Sycophants at court would imitate him, and that is how the expressions came into being. I am not sure if 'what-ho' is one of them, or even if it was George ll. Anyway, it was one of the Georges.
    – WS2
    Jan 7, 2014 at 18:59
  • It should be remembered that Wodehouse lived most of his life in the US and was writing for a largely US audience.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 22, 2016 at 13:11
  • @Hot Licks: But "what ho!" and similar expressions are by no means limited to Wodehouse's writing, but seem (at least from my reading) to have been fairly common expressions among (at least) young upper-class British of the period. I'm sure you could find parallels among for instance today's urban youth.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 22, 2016 at 17:01
  • 1
    @Hot Licks: I don't think Wodehouse was writing primarily for Americans. His books were as popular in Britain as in the US (if not more so), and during the 1920s period when Jeeves & Bertie were created, he lived as much in Britain as the US. Bertie's perhaps a humorous exaggeration of an upper-class young Briton of the period, but as far as I can tell, one drawn - like Psmith - pretty much from life.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 23, 2016 at 20:11

7 Answers 7

5

According to this article, "what ho" is derived from "hwaet", which is the first word of Beowulf and is a sign of greeting. I don't think "ho" has a meaning by itself.

3
  • 1
    It is just and interjection used as a call to attract attention or as an exclamation of surprise or delight.
    – Luke_0
    Aug 4, 2012 at 22:12
  • 2
    Yes, more or less equivalent to Wassup? Aug 4, 2012 at 22:29
  • Ah, Bertie Wooster reciting Beowulf in Old English. Lovely image. Hwæt Ho! Jan 29, 2023 at 3:45
2

In my opinion this is nautical in nature, deriving from "Land ho!", the traditional lookout's joyful cry on sighting land. Bertie usually uses this in greeting, and the meaning is roughly "What's up?", or "What's going on?" For a sailor, land is what is going on; for Bertie he doesn't know and he's asking.

5
  • 1
    Hi Woosterfan, your answer has been flagged as low-quality, possibly because it's too short or not detailed enough. At the very least, I would ask that you please edit to include a reference supporting your assertion that this is its origin, otherwise it can't be considered a definitive answer, which is what we look for on this site. - From Review Mar 22, 2016 at 12:53
  • 1
    @JohnClifford this answer was posted over a year ago, and since then the answerer has disappeared. I don't know why it's being flagged today... You could edit the post and add references yourself, if you like.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 22, 2016 at 12:55
  • Sorry @Mari-LouA, didn't notice the posting date. Mar 22, 2016 at 12:56
  • @JohnClifford no need to apologize, someone flagged it, you're not at fault :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 22, 2016 at 12:57
  • I think this answer is more relevant than others
    – Mitch
    Mar 22, 2016 at 15:41
2

I grew up Wednesfield, Staffordshire (near Wolverhampton, England) in the 1950s and 60s where "What ho" was a very common greeting between young working class lads although it was usually pronounced as "Worro" (often followed by "our kid"). It certainly wasn't trying to be pretentiously Shakepearean! Much more likely the utterance had simply remained in usage from pre-Shakespearean times. I've often wondered if "what ho" is itself a shortening/corruption of "What, who's this?", or if "ho" is related to "hove" (as in the nautical "hove into view").

Other common greetings were "Watcha" (l suppose short for "what are you doing/up to") and "Alright?" Although we sometimes said "Hullo" we never said "Hi" or "Hey". Grown ups would often say "how do you do?" shortened to "how do?".

1

"What!" has been explained.

"Ho!" is an essential attention getter, from earlier English, but the semiotic is universal, isn't it? The most famous use is in Isaiah 55:1, King James version: "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price."

In that passage, the word stems from the Hebrew, "ה֤וֹי" pronounced... "Ho!"
;-) https://biblehub.com/text/isaiah/55-1.htm

0

It's a Shakespearean reference. Try googling "what ho Othello" or "what ho apothecary".

I think it's probably intended to allude to Bertie Wooster's (presumably expensive) education and illustrate his flippant nature.

0

Isn't 'ho' in this case from the middle english - meaning 'who'?

I dont have reputation to comment :( However, the Daily Mail is an English tabloid 'newspaper' which should not be regarded as a reliable source.

1
  • 2
    The Daily Mail article is about David Crystal's book, The Story of English in 100 Words. He is one the most eminent and respected English linguists today.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 4, 2015 at 21:05
0

The phrase is far older than I imagined – over 600 years old:

OED

what ho, int. and adj.

A. int. An exclamation used to call the attention of a person, or as an expression of excitement or exultation. Now archaic or affected.

c1405 (▸c1390) G. Chaucer Miller's Tale (Hengwrt) (2003) l. 251 What how, what do ye maister Nicholay.

1579 E. Spenser Shepheardes Cal. July 5 What ho, thou iollye shepheards swayne, Come vp the hyll to me.

And Ho!:

ho, int.1 and n.2

A. int.1

1. An exclamation expressing, according to intonation, surprise, admiration, exultation (often ironical), triumph, taunting.

a1400 (▸a1325) Cursor Mundi (Vesp.) l. 12129 ‘Ho!’ [Gött. O ho!] all þan cun þai cri, ‘Qua herd euer sua gret ferli’.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.