DO WHAT?

I just learned about a regionalism I hadn’t been aware of: “Do what?” as an equivalent of “excuse me?” or “pardon me?” when someone says something you didn’t catch. According to this AskMetaFilter thread it’s native to the Texas hill country, North Carolina, and Alabama; any of you from other areas know and/or use it?

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is common in Northeast Texas as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is found throughout the South.

  2. I grew up in North Carolina, and I’ve certainly heard it used. I’d say it’s still a pretty informal usage, though. You probably wouldn’t say it to your professor or, say, your grandmother. It’d be interesting to see if it was particularly regional within North Carolina, though. I wonder if anyone has suggested it to Walt Wolfram. :-)

  3. Very, very common in south Louisiana.

  4. I grew up in Colorado and heard “do what?” on occasion, mostly from non-Coloradans, who were then made fun of for saying this. I currently work with a native Alabaman who says it sometimes. But I agree with Dana, it seems to be for casual convos, a bit like “gonna” & “dunno.”

  5. *raises hand* North Carolina. I’m working on importing it to Wisconsin.

  6. I suspect it is used in many parts of the south. I have heard it used in rural Tennessee, Mississippi and North Carolina.
    It is often used when the speaker finds an utterance (often a request?) unintelligible or unexpected.

  7. Seth Morabito says:

    My college roommate from Virginia said “Say again?” all the time, which confused the hell out of me when I first heard it.

  8. My stepfather says “Do what?” all the time. Actually, to be more accurate, his version is “Do what now?” and he’s a native Minnesotan. But to be fair, he’s also been a truck driver most of his life, so I guess I’d assume that he picked it up in his travels, except for the fact that his immediate family also says it. They’re the only people I know here in Minnesota who say it; I know that much.

  9. North Carolinian here, and, yes, I know it (and use it from time to time). Never noticed it was regional, actually.

  10. I recall a Monty Python record with a song called “Do What John?” and lo Google delivers:
    http://www.lyricsdepot.com/monty-python/do-what-john.html

  11. I’m relatively certain that it’s used across the south. I grew up in Arkansas and it’s used frequently there, and I agree with the previous poster that it is indeed on the level of casual speech.

  12. joe tomei says:

    A yes for Picayune, Mississippi (at least 25 years ago). I imagine it stems from people saying they are going to do something that seems implausible to the listener, and from there, expanded into a general statement meaning excuse me. It would be interesting to know if there are any constraints on what statements it can be applied to. Perhaps
    I’m going to drive to Gulfport.
    Do what?
    but not
    I feel sick.
    *Do what?
    I am tempted to say that ‘Say what?’ fulfills a similar function, but I’m not really sure if I’m just making that up.

  13. The “say again?” individual is probably a pilot or the offspring of a pilot. Because air traffic phraseology is so strict, and becomes so ingrained, code switching from “say again?” and “standby,” back to “pardon me?” and “could you wait a moment please?” is very difficult.

  14. Pretty common among South Louisville, KY teens about 30 years-ago. I rarely hear it since I’ve left high school.
    Come to think of it I haven’t heard “do what” as much since the Ohio Players “Love Rollercoaster” was popular — about 1975. Since then I hear “say what?” as much as “excuse me?” or “pardon me?”

  15. John Kozak says:

    Found in London, as well.

  16. Definitely heard in Northern Virginia, but my sense is it’s an import. I don’t say it, except when I’m clowning.

  17. Very common in England. I hate it!

  18. West Virginia, too, for what it’s worth.

  19. I’m a Hill Country native. We use “Do what?” in the way you describe — so often that “excuse me?” sounds really snooty by comparison — but “Do what now?” is usually an expression of extreme disbelief. Like Naomi, I never realized this was a regional thing.
    Caitlín Kiernan was just commenting on this the other day, oddly enough. Evidently it’s common in Georgia.

  20. Thanks to everyone for the extremely enlightening responses; it certainly seems to be widespread in the South, and since it’s found in Arkansas and Oklahoma you’d think I’d be familiar with it from my father’s side of the family, but I’m not. I’m quite surprised at its use in England, since it’s unlikely to have been imported via the media (if Brits had been exposed to it that way, so would I) and it seems an unlikely expression to have developed independently. MM, is it really used the same way (to replace “Excuse me?” when you don’t understand someone)?

  21. rustcellar says:

    Heard occasionally in Atlanta, but we have enough imported accent that I don’t know what that means.

  22. I’m also from the hill country area. I’ve heard it often enough, but I wouldn’t say it is extremely common. I tend to say ‘What’s that?’ or ‘What’s up?’ more than anything else when I didn’t fully hear/understand something. I hear ‘Excuse me?’ used most often to indicate that one has been offended by something (i.e. ‘Chomsky is the most important American thinker.’ ‘Excuse me?’).

  23. we have it in Dallas, certainly; i believe it is perceived as “Ebonic”, whether or not that is the case.

  24. I was amused to realize that I, a book editor, say this sometimes – “Do WHAT now?” – without ever giving it a second thought. I think I would say it only to my husband, who also grew up in Alabama, and only in moments of exasperation, when he’s saying something that seems absurd or incomprehensible.
    Since it seems to be heard mainly in the South and in England, could it be based on a bit of old English dialect, brought to the South by early English immigrants and preserved there by the South’s relative isolation, like some other oddities of Southern speech?

  25. I’d never heard of it until that AskMe thread, either — very interesting. It reminds me of the Mexican expression “mande” (“order me”), which is used in contexts where other Spanish speakers would use “que?” (“What?”).
    The pragmatic force of “mande” and “do what?” seems to be the same: one asks to be told what to do. It’s very deferential — the expression suggests that whatever utterance one has failed to hear is an order.

  26. In Missouri, I occasionally hear “do what?” from the rural side of my family (the same side that pronounces “tire” close to “tar”). I never use it myself, though — “say what?” is more common among the non-rural folk.

  27. Someone over at AskMe commented: “It’s used where I live too, in the Fens in East Anglia in the UK. The meaning is slightly different though, as it’s used as an exclamation of surprise, as in “Did I hear that right?” or “I don’t believe it!”
    Interesting: perhaps that supports for my idea (in previous comment) that maybe there’s an old English connection?

  28. I’ve heard it in rural Oregon, (which got a lot of immigration from the South during the Depression), but only rarely.

  29. Very common all over Southern and Central Illinois and Southeast Missouri. I use it all the time.

  30. Michael Farris says:

    “It reminds me of the Mexican expression “mande” (“order me”)”
    I actually though “mande” meant something more like “send (to) me” as in “send that message to me again, it didn’t get through the first time”.
    I was taught to say “?como?” when I didn’t understand something and that “?que?” sounded common or rude. Actual contact with Spanish speakers though indicated to me that “?que?” is pretty widely used in many countries.

  31. Pretty common among my grandparents’ and parents’ generations in Southern Indiana, but I don’t use it. Now that I live in NYC, I don’t think I ever hear it, but maybe I just don’t notice it.

  32. Another product of Louisville, Ky., resident there from 1980-1991, is proud to report intimate acquaintance with “Do what?”.
    On the topic of “huh?” in Spanish: we hosted an exchange student from Mexico when I was in high school, and he said “Que cosa?” a lot. (Sorry for the lack of accents.) It confused the heck out of me. Until I looked in a dictionary and figured out it was yet another way to ask for clarification, I kept repeating to him the last noun I had used, thinking he had meant “What thing?”

  33. Yes, it’s used that way, as ‘excuse me?’, totally out of the blue without any reason for the verb. And it can’t be imported from the USA. I heard it first when I was about 16. I realized it just wasn’t used in our family. It is also often criticized – it often goes with an irritated tone of voice and sounds like ‘If you are asking me to do something, I’m not going to, and I’m not interested in what you’ve got to say anyway’, although apparently some people use it without meaning it negatively.
    Incidentally, in Britain ‘What’s up?’ used to mean and possibly still does, ‘What’s wrong?’, which I think is different in the USA.
    I thought ‘Excuse me?’ when you don’t understand someone was a Britishism?

  34. No, we say that here too. When you’re a kid and you say “What?” your parents say “That’s not polite, dear—say ‘Excuse me.’”

  35. I don’t believe “Do what?” and its cousin “Say what?” both meaning “What did you say?” are Ebonic. Though I’m white, I work in a school that’s 80% black, and am immersed in varieties of black vernacular English all the time. I do remember hearing these expressions as a college student when I got a job in a restaurant staffed by mostly white southerners with modest educations plus some university part-timers. Do what and say what were expressions my Northern Jewish relatives would never use, so my limited horisons were broadened.

  36. Though I’m hardly an expert in Britishisms, I know that my few ESL students who have had British English training routinely use “Sorry?”, with an upward question intonation at the end. I personally don’t like it and want to say “What are you sorry about?” but refrain. That “sorry?” may well could be (I used a double modal!!)a Britishism.

  37. I have to agree with Toby. Do what? and Say what? in my experience have nothing to do with race. Maybe there is a class distinction, but having little contact with the gentry I wouldn’t know though experience.

  38. I recall now one of my sergeants, an African-American “raised up” in rural Alabama, would respond to me with “Do what now?” sometimes when I proposed a task or requested and action from him. I never thought twice about it, maybe because I might have been trained to speak quickly and briefly, keep verbiage simple. However I don’t believe I ever spoke that myself, having grown up in an Anglo-Irish and Catholic immigrant parish in a Wasp Middle-West town.
    I’d say it’s probably a rural working-class expression.
    As to “say again” –it’s used in the Army, in communications speech. Since the Air Force developed from the old Army Aviation branch, the pilots inherited that as the standard commo jargon. What I find odd is that I hear my wife using that expression, and wonder if she got it from me. We had been an Army family for six years.

  39. In repsonse to Toby’s last post, here in Australia “Sorry?” is very common and definitely acceptable in polite conversation. It’s an automatic response for me, I don’t even realise I’m saying it.
    “Do what?” sounds as alien to me as “Sorry?” does to Toby. I can’t get it sounding right in my head. I’ve never heard it in Australia, I think I’d probably respond with “Sorry?” if I ever heard someone say it.

  40. West Virginia’s Hasil “Haze” Adkins does The Do What Now:
    http://www.deuceofclubs.com/write/adkins.htm

  41. It sounds perfectly natural to me, up here in British Columbia. I can’t recall any specific instances of I or other people saying it, however. I think I always just say “What?”

  42. I thought “do what” was the response to a command you didn’t understand, and “say what” was the response to a comment you didn’t understand (or else just “what”).
    I’ve also heard both “sorry” and “excuse me” used when you didn’t understand someone, but find that I do have to be careful of the tone of “excuse me” or else people misunderstand.
    That’s the word from northeastern WV.

  43. Rupert Goodwins says:

    I can remember Do What? from my schooldays in Plymouth (um… late 70s, early 80s) and certainly heard it subsequently in London and Cambridge. So it’s not uncommon in southern and eastern England, albeit with the sense of “What? I don’t believe it” and some resonance with “You WHAT?”. As has been mentioned, Sorry? is ubiquitous over here as shorthand for “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch what you said”.
    As for Say again?, this is standard radio technique and is taught as such in the military (I presume also in civilian air traffic control, but don’t know). The correct usage is “Say again all after ‘grid reference’” or whatever the last piece of intelligable communication was, and you reply with “I say again” followed by the missing chunk.
    R

  44. I grew up in Ohio and now live in northern Kentucky. I occasionally hear people say “Do what?” but it seems to only be when the person is expressing extreme surprise or disbelief at what has just been said. I generally say “I’m sorry?” in a questioning tone when I have not heard someone clearly, and I know many people who say “Excuse me?” or “Pardon?”

  45. Hi LH. Yes, here in Oklahoma most native Okies and Texans I know regularly use “do what” as in “please clarify that”.
    You ever hear of “tump”. As in “don’t swing too high or you’re liable to tump the swingset over”. Or its past tense, “Damn, the swingset tumped over again”.
    One I don’t get is “you-uns”. Some cousins from California moved back recently and they use it alot. I get the “you” part but am stumped where in the world “uns” fits in.

  46. John Cunningham says:

    I grew up in Cincinnati, and I recall hearing “do what” somewhat commonly from people who had come from Appalachia.

  47. Kirk,
    Tump! We used to say that as children (in Alabama) but I don’t think I’ve heard or used it since. That one word brought a rush of memories: swingsets and bug dronings and long lazy hot summer days.
    But I’ve never heard anyone say “you-uns” (though I’ve seen it written). Not in Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia, or Virginia – the places I’ve lived. Maybe it came from “you ones”? As another way of creating a plural form of “you” (like “y’all”).

  48. Just today here in Shenandoah County I heard it twice in a half-hour conversation, once where it meant disbelief (response to a joke – the ferrier didn’t believe the horse-trainer feeds them mustard oil), and once where it meant non-comprehension.

  49. Kirk,
    My mother uses that expression all the time, but she contracts it to “yuns” (rhymes with “sons”). Her parents grew up in Appalachia and she grew up in Ohio. It’s akin to y’all, as Lin mentioned.

  50. Just to be clear, I was referring to Do what? and not to tump, which I’ve never heard, nor to you-uns neither.

  51. Frylock: He needs his brain or else he’s just going to float around saying ‘do what now.’
    Meatwad: Do what now?
    –from the TV show “Aqua Teen Hunger Force”

  52. mauralabingi says:

    “Do what, now?” is a very common interrogative statement in the South Carolina lowcountry.

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