I'm a non-native speaker. When I was at school, we were taught that "on earth" is used for emphasis in questions such as:

What on earth are you talking about?

However, from my experience (English movies, TV, online discussions, etc.), I seldom see people actually use the phrase "on earth".

From what I see, the most commonly used phrases that express basically the same meaning are "What the fuck..." and "What the hell...".

I don't like cursing or obscenity (call me old-fashioned), so here are my questions:

Is "on earth" still commonly used in real life?

Is there any alternative that is not cursing or obscene?

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    "On earth" is still common, as is "in the world" used the same way. – htoip Aug 20 '12 at 11:04
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    "What in the name of [expression]" is getting fairly commonplace, with [expression] ranging from pious to profane to vulgar to creative to intentionally pompous and elaborate... – Shadur Aug 20 '12 at 12:20
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    So.. Anyone else also first think of Carmen Sandiego? – Izkata Aug 20 '12 at 13:49
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    Do you consider "What the heck" as cursing? – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Aug 20 '12 at 16:04
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    "What the" (truncated ending) is also an option. The listener may fill in the rest. – Spare Oom Aug 21 '12 at 2:14

The usage stats from the British National Corpus (BNC) and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) look as follows:

                          BNC             COCA
                      TOTAL  SPOKEN   TOTAL  SPOKEN

what the hell          716     143    4668     408
what on earth          585      85     607      99
what the fuck           93      30     980       1
what the heck           31      15     671     294
what the devil          55       7     121       6
what in heaven's name   12       1      29       4
what the blazes          9       1       8       0
what the deuce           2       0       9       1 
what the flip            0       0       2       1
what the blank           0       0       0       0

As you can see, "what on earth" is still common on both sides of the pond, but relatively more common in the UK than in the US.

So let's look more closely at its popularity in the States. The Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) paints the following picture:

enter image description here

(X axis: year, Y axis: incidences per million words)

This suggests that indeed, both "what the hell" and "what the fuck" have been getting more popular in the recent decades.

  • Thanks. The corpora you mention cover both written and spoken English, and thus their results mean more to me than Google Books results. – Betty Aug 20 '12 at 13:17
  • @RegDwightАΑA Does what the blank indicate the sentence was truncated or that blank is actually said? I hear the truncated version spoken quite a lot more than either "what on earth" or "what in the world" nowadays, though never written. – Spare Oom Aug 21 '12 at 2:12
  • @RegDwightАΑA The new numbers puzzled me. "What the fuck" only has one spoken instance in COCA? – Betty Aug 21 '12 at 2:47
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    @Betty: That doesn't surprise me. The COCA sifts through transcripts from non-scripted media interviews for that data, where the utterance is unlikely to occur. (Had they monitored, say, conversations at sports bars, I'm sure the frequency would have been much higher.) Another factor to consider is that the phrase might have even been spoken in an interview, but then 'bleeped out' for broadcast purposes, and subsequently transcribed as "What the [expletive deleted]?" which wouldn't register a search hit. Hard to tell for sure. – J.R. Aug 21 '12 at 9:09

I realize that Ngrams have limitations and can be overused, but I thought there might be a use for one with this question, and the result was not disappointing:

enter image description here

The Ngram indicates that what on earth has seen its heyday, but isn't extinct yet.

Thumbing through the results of the book search, one can see that many of its modern uses are puns (such as the children's book entitled What on Earth Is a Meerkat?, which plays off how the word earth can be used in a biological sense, or the subtitle of Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?, which forms a theological pun.)

Still, the phrase still gets used as a good old-fashioned mild oath from time to time. From a 2006 edition of Women's Health magazine:

enter image description here

As for alternatives, there's always "Heavens to Betsy!" but that probably sounds more outdated than "What on earth..."

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    In my part of the world we had "Heavens to Murgatroyd!", though I have seen several websites saying it is American in origin. – Roaring Fish Aug 20 '12 at 10:52
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    @RoaringFish: There's quite a few alternatives I could have listed, but I opted to go with "Betsy" owing to the O.P.'s name :^) – J.R. Aug 20 '12 at 10:54
  • @J.R. Thanks for the pun ... What would you use in real life spoken English? – Betty Aug 20 '12 at 11:01
  • @RoaringFish I remembered that Murgatroyd phrase from cartoons, then found a link explaining the origins here answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080707123703AA9IoCE – David Navarre Aug 20 '12 at 16:08
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    What in the world are you thinking? All this shows is that people did not often publish books with foul language before such-and-such a date. It says nothing about speech. – tchrist Aug 20 '12 at 18:48

I live in the south of England and "What on earth..." is reasonably common. An alternative would be "What in heaven's name...". However, this is increasingly 'posh' sounding. I would have said these phrases are typically British (although possibly not — see the comment by KitFox).

Personally I would never/rarely use "What on earth..." in online discussion (simply because it's a bit long winded), however, I would in spoken English.

  • Thanks. To make sure I understood you, when you say "this is increasingly 'posh' sounding", you mean only "What in heavens name...", right? And by "these phrases" you mean both "What on earth..." and "What in heavens name...", right? – Betty Aug 20 '12 at 10:40
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    I live in the northeast US. I have two young children, so we use it all the time as an alternative to the "what the hell" that Grampy taught them. It's common here. – Kit Z. Fox Aug 20 '12 at 10:54
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    I have an aunt and uncle who won't buy pizza from Hell, because of the name. – user16269 Aug 20 '12 at 11:16
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    I, too, live in south-east England, and 'what on earth?' is most certainly part of my linguistic repertoire. I wouldn't hesitate to use it, where appropriate, in online discussions. – Barrie England Aug 20 '12 at 11:18
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    @Betty Yes, 'what the hell' is not as bad as 'what the fuck,' but I don't feel it is appropriate for children to use. 'What the heck' would probably be OK, but my eldest kept getting 'heck' and 'hell' confused (which is hilarious, by the way: "What the heck? I mean, hell. I mean...Mommy, which one is the polite one again?"). – Kit Z. Fox Aug 20 '12 at 12:03

The technical term for this ia a minced oath, and you may be able to look up a list. The difficulty is that, like other oaths, they are more used in speech than in writing, and, being non-standard, they vary from place to place and among age-groups. But I have heard what the deuce, what the flip, what the hey, and even what the blank, as well as the more usual what the heck and what on earth.

There is, of course, a rather more subtle point: while 'What on earth are you doing here?' just shows greater surprise than 'What are you doing here?', 'What the hell are you doing here?' is not a straightforward question; it shows anger, at least. This may be one of the few places where bad language is actually necessary (to convey the full meaning).

  • "What on earth are you doing here?" Does "on earth" modify "what" or the whole sentence? – james Dec 24 '12 at 21:04
  • @james: The former. What are you doing here on earth? would mean something different. – Tim Lymington Dec 26 '12 at 11:08
  • I would not have described "What on earth..." as a minced oath. It means something like "What possible explanation is there in the whole world for your doing that?" – Kate Bunting Sep 13 '16 at 8:57

I think 'what on earth' is still used, and Ngram suggests that its popularity is on the increase again, at least in books.

Alternatives... 'what the devil', or 'what the blazes, or 'what the Dickens' was one my mother used.

  • "What the devil" is also cursing, like "what the hell", isn't it? And the last two, I have never seen. Thank you. :) – Betty Aug 20 '12 at 10:50
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    I thought 'what the devil' was quite tame, more so than 'what the hell' It is tame enough to be used in a newspaper headline – Roaring Fish Aug 20 '12 at 12:22
  • "What in Sam Hill" was always a favorite of mine (and my wife's Grandmother). – user362 Aug 20 '12 at 18:12
  • "What in the world" works too! – MrZander Aug 20 '12 at 18:48

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