WHAT.

Most language-related internet fads I’m not crazy about. I can’t stand smileys and their relations; some of the abbreviations (e.g., WTF) are efficient and useful, even if they don’t inspire enthusiasm; catchphrases (All Your Base) quickly wear out their welcome. But there’s one recent innovation (at least, I think it’s recent—see below) that I absolutely love. For, oh, the past year or so I’ve been noticing, and when appropriate using, a delightful… what to call it? It’s not an exclamation, because it’s determinedly low-key; it’s not really an interjection, because it’s not interjected, it’s a standalone response. And I wasn’t sure how to find an example, because it’s impossible to search for (see below). But I trusted to serendipity, which rarely fails me, and sure enough fate provided one. My wife and I were listening to This American Life, and the second part of the episode involved the insufficient response of the chairman of the SEC to the current financial meltdown (which is an odd subject for TAL, but never mind that). The host, Ira Glass, started out by explaining the recondite (to most of us) concept of the naked short. Short selling is a familiar enough concept if you know anything about the stock market; you think a stock is going to go down, so you borrow a bunch of shares, sell them, then buy them back (at a lower price, if you’ve guessed correctly) just before you have to return them, having made a bundle. Naked short selling, Ira said, is just the same, except you don’t borrow the stocks first. To which I could think of only one response:
what
This is not a “What!” of outrage, or a “What?” of inquiry. Unlike those standard forms, it does not represent a spoken version; it is a purely written (and, so far as I know, online) phenomenon. It uses and distorts the conventions of writing to produce the equivalent of a slack-jawed stare of bafflement; it is always written just as it is above, lower-case, no punctuation, on a line of its own. It is a response to something so out of left field, so incomprehensible, that nothing coherent can be said about it. I find it hilarious and addictive, and I am not the only one. I would love to know where it came from and when it was created and by whom.
But how can you investigate it? It’s one of the commonest words in English, there’s no distinctive context, and there’s no way to search for its features (as far as I know). If lexical invention were against the law, this would be the perfect crime; like an ice dagger that melts in the victim’s body, it leaves nothing for the detective to work with. I leave it as a challenge for the clever folks at the Log; if anyone can figure out a way to get a handle on it, they can.

Comments

  1. I thank you for at long last broaching this topic, sir.

  2. I suspect it is a truncated version of “Say what?”
    This phrase has been in use for some years and indicates a mild puzzlement, with perhaps an implied request, or hope, for further explanation.

  3. Carl Caputo says:

    Oh please let there be an answer forthcoming!

  4. Perhaps I have misunderstood from your description, but isn’t this really just a quiet “What?”, as in “[Er...] what [did you just say]?”
    “like an ice dagger that melts in the victim’s body”
    Or a leg of lamb

  5. s. weynard miller says:

    On certain message boards it is written as
    WAT

  6. It was used in Questionable Content recently (though with a period), and the author’s sidebar implies he got it from Dinosaur Comics.

  7. Best I can do is point to the relevant Encyclopedia Dramatica entry.

  8. I read Questionable Content daily, but had not realsied that the strip linked to above contained an example of what hat’s writing about here. Not that it helps to know. My reaction to this new meme is, aptly enough, “the equivalent of a slack-jawed stare of bafflement”. I am simply unable to grasp how it is that this “what” is “using and distorting the conventions of writing” to achieve any end at all. Maybe it’s because I always vocalise what I’m reading, even if only internally, and so the cleverness of this usage whizzes over my head. All I can see is a non sequitur, and now that I know what it is supposed to convey, my inner petulant just keeps on whining, “but how do you SAY it?”

  9. Here’s a forum post at the 4chan forums that epitomizes “wat”.
    (note: 4chan posts aren’t archived, so this is a screengrab)
    wat is sometimes the only possible way to respond to an incomprehensible picture or message. It is just a novel way of expressing WTF sentiment.

  10. Given that I, and many of the people I know, have always used “what” in conversation to express utter bafflement at some piece of illogicality or incomprehensibility–usually said as if it was punctuated with a !? at the end (or perhaps that should be a ?!)–I don’t find it this very novel or mysterious.
    I had always understood the proper term for such verbalisms, when categorizing them as a part of speech, is ejaculation.

  11. What exactly are “the conventions of writing”? They wouldn’t be “conventions” would they, if they were there to be distorted? Perhaps a post on the silly-gism “conventions of…” would be more elucidating.

  12. “usually said as if it was punctuated with a !? at the end (or perhaps that should be a ?!)”
    The eternal mystery of the ages – why did the interrobang not take off?

  13. What‽ I use the interrobang all the time!
    Well, occasionally. Sometimes people even have the necessary fonts to see it.

  14. i’m stealing “‽”. love it. hadn’t ever really noticed it before while browsing my character sheets.
    font could definitely be a problem though

  15. I’ve always read it aloud as “what” with no particular emphasis, no question intonation, no nothing. An equivalent nonverbal gesture might be blinking a few times in succession with gaze fixed on the interlocutor, and with no specific facial expression. It’s communicating that you found the previous statement to be utterly incomprehensible or contextless, your parser and semantic processor have broken, and there’s no reasonable response possible. You just wait until the conversation resets.
    The sort that might require an interrobang is a completely different expression. The quiet “what?” is not equivalent either. Both indicate that you might actually want some form of clarification. But the emotionless “what” doesn’t, it just signals that you refuse to make sense of what was said.
    “wat” is probably equivalent, but “WAT” is not. Being in ALL CAPS, it’s the text version of the cry of disbelief. There’s no subtlety to it.
    There is a canonical followup to “what” which is “oh ok”. That should be posted a few minutes later, implying that you have thought about the situation, and accepted it. Not agreed, just accepted that the interlocutor is insane and the rest of the thread is ignorable.
    The most important point of “what” is that in uttering (typing) it, you are indicating that you don’t actually want a response. You’re not asking for an explanation, you’re just indicating your incapability of making any sense of what was said, most likely to a third party who you assume to be on your side of the situation. If you really wanted an explanation then you’d use a question mark or question intonation.

  16. Well, I and my peers utter “what” in normal speech. I feel this has been going on for a while, but memory for these things is rather unreliable. It’s flat in tone but a bit drawn out. But then again, I and others around me have been known to say “lol” out loud.

  17. Kári Tulinius says:

    Oh yeah… I live in Providence, Rhode Island and am 27. My peer group is early 20′s to mid 30′s.

  18. michael farris says:

    “why did the interrobang not take off?”
    Cause it’s uggggly?

  19. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Yes. What Michael said. And the name. And it’s not possible to write by hand. And if you can’t make the imaginative jumps required you probably ought not to be reading.

  20. “And it’s not possible to write by hand.” is astonishingly easy to write by hand. In keeping with this thread, I should have replied with a simple
    what

  21. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    It seems graphically badly organized. There are two lines coming from one origin, but Stuart, shouldn’t you be in bed?

  22. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    An umlaut straddling an exclamation point would be better. By looking like a little face it would have the added advantage of annoying Language!¨

  23. “but Stuart, shouldn’t you be in bed?”
    At 22:28, you’re probably right. LH has been in such productive form recently that I find myself glued to this page, even when it is way past a salubrious bedtime.

  24. It’s communicating that you found the previous statement to be utterly incomprehensible or contextless, your parser and semantic processor have broken, and there’s no reasonable response possible. You just wait until the conversation resets.
    The sort that might require an interrobang is a completely different expression. The quiet “what?” is not equivalent either. Both indicate that you might actually want some form of clarification. But the emotionless “what” doesn’t, it just signals that you refuse to make sense of what was said.
    “wat” is probably equivalent, but “WAT” is not. Being in ALL CAPS, it’s the text version of the cry of disbelief. There’s no subtlety to it.
    James is entirely correct. And on the subject of the interrobang, I suspect it didn’t catch on because it’s so easy to write or type the interro and the bang in succession, conveying the same thing.

  25. > Most language-related internet fads I’m not crazy about. I can’t stand smileys and their relations; […]
    Good to know! But for what it’s worth, they’re not strictly an Internet fad, firstly because “fad” implies shortlivetude, and secondly because they’re not specifically an Internet phenomenon. I, for one, first encountered them in Lois Lowry’s 1992 book Attaboy Sam!, where the title character and his mother discover them on a typewriter. And at the other end, my cell-phone’s text-messaging system has a special interface for emoticon selection, suggesting that someone must be using them in text messages.
    > But how can you investigate it? It’s one of the commonest words in English, there’s no distinctive context, and there’s no way to search for its features (as far as I know).
    True. But you say it stands on a line of its own, without even punctuation, so from a computing standpoint, that’s distinctive context right there. As you know, general-purpose search engines (Google and whatnot) collapse whitespace; but if and when a linguist-oriented search engine gets off the ground, this is definitely something it could (and should) support.

  26. For some reason I’m surprised to find references to ED and 4chan in this of all places.
    I know exactly what you’re talking about, but my personal preference is “Wait HWUT?!” I don’t actually aspirate my interrogatives, myself, but it seems appropriate to add emphasis. Even if it’s only in print.

  27. The “what” of mild bafflement used to be said “You what?” among the vulgar English.

  28. “not possible to write by hand”… this from a member of the species which has produced the entire body of art and written languages. Wake up from your computer and look around! Perhaps you could investigate a language other than English- Thai, Hindi….

  29. I’m actually from another species, EMJ. If you had bothered to read a bit further you would know that since August 1 of this year I have been the absentee King of Mars. A little less rudeness and some deference to my very difficult new position wouldn’t come amiss.

  30. “I, for one, first encountered them in Lois Lowry’s 1992 book Attaboy Sam!, where the title character and his mother discover them on a typewriter.”
    Smileys were around long before 1992; they were used in email and usegroups since 1982. They may be a bit of a fad, but they are actually useful at times to indicate that you’re trying to be funny rather than offensive when you say something facetious in an email. The inspiration for their online use was probably those yellow smileys that showed up on car windows sometime in the 70s, but there is no single point of origin. See wikipedia on all this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smiley (which cites a 1982 news group use of the smiley). See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emoticon which cites use of emoticons going back to a Morse code version in 1857, and typographical versions well before the 1963 yellow smiley face.

  31. In a certain aforementioned imageboard/forum people use what in that sense, usually spelling it as either wat or wut. Often there is a lol in front of it, thus giving us “lol wut,” which basically is a [sarcastic, even humiliating in a way] reply to a comment that doesn’t make sense, or is otherwise unbelievable.

  32. But how can you investigate it? It’s one of the commonest words in English, there’s no distinctive context, and there’s no way to search for its features (as far as I know).
    Like Ran says, there may be specialty approaches available. Someone with direct db access to, say, a few million comments from a community blog could go pattern matching for uninflected “what”, for example.
    James’ description of (lack of) affect is, yeah, dead on in my reading of this meme. If the interrogative/incredulous “what?[!]” is Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club, the affectless “what” is Seth Rogan in a Judd Apatow production.

  33. This is a job for Conversation Analysis. I’m positive that somebody has done a study or paper on “what” as a discourse marker in spoken and/or written communication by now. I’ll see what I can dig up if I have some time later.
    My personal take is that it’s funny because it usually follows a lengthy and/or complex conversational turn with a one-word dismissal. There is a great contrast created, one that not only calls out the difference in amount of content of each turn, but also of understanding, ability to understand, and effort put forth in cooperation by all interlocuters. It’s the conversational equivalent of a very large ball being hurled with great force at a very near wall.

  34. I just wrote and then lost an long comment on a category of linguistic meaning called mirativity. I can’t rewrite the whole thing, but in short it is a grammatical category that has been defined as grammatically indicating that the speaker has not yet assessed how (or if) the information being communicated fits (or does not fit) into his or her conception of reality. Other definitions include the marking of information that does not accord with the speaker’s expectations of reality, information that the speaker was not mentally prepared to receive, and information that is new or surprising to the speaker.
    I was thinking that maybe ‘what’ is some kind of mirative intonational idiom. But maybe I’m just making that up because I think mirativity is a cool category.
    Anyway, I thought it seemed relevant. Sorry I lost all of my examples.

  35. marie-lucie says:

    erindanika: Yes, the little-known category of mirativity (indicated by specific affixes or particles in some Amerindian languages) covers what you describe. Some possible translations in English (besides the flat what discussed here) are “you’ve got to be kidding”, “I don’t believe it” (said “flat”, not as an assertion), “Oh yeah” and similar expressions indicating the bewilderment of someone stunned by hearing something unbelievable but still just barely possible.

  36. I use the lolcatized version, “whut”, in the same way. (Though it tends to occur more often elsewhere as “WHUT?” which is not at all the same thing.)

  37. michael farris says:

    ” ‽ is astonishingly easy to write by hand ”
    But astonishingly hard to write so that it doesn’t look like a mistake.
    I’m sympathetic to the idea of combining ? and ! but it should look like its own symbol and not one written over another.

  38. If I recall (script not to hand), “what” appears in the early part of the film “Pulp Fiction”, a character astonished and scared used it repeatedly, prompting Samuel Jackson’s character to cry (and I can’t quite remember the quote) “Say what again. Say what again, motherfucker, say what one more Goddamn time!”

  39. What is the difference between “what” and “huh?”?

  40. I agree with that James said – I think the key thing that distinguishes
    what
    from other similar expressions (“WUT”, “WHAT?!?!” “Whaaaaa?”, and “just.. just.. what?” among them) is that the lack of capitalisation, punctuation or any surrounding contextual text has the effect of making it entirely deadpan. Deadpan is not an easy thing to achieve in text, but this manages it.
    I am fairly confident that the only person currently alive who can properly vocalise
    what
    is Bill Murray.

  41. I realize this is not on topic but I am fascinated by the phrase “an odd subject for TAL.” I can’t quite figure out whether it’s a contradiction in terms or a tautology. The first segment in the program on naked short selling was about a couple of guys who have made a hobby of scamming Nigerian scammers and who can forget the classic story about the squirrel cops?

  42. What is the difference between “what” and “huh?”?
    The latter has too much affect. It expresses surprise and implies a desire for a response, whereas “what” expresses merely blank incomprehension and calls for nothing.
    I am fairly confident that the only person currently alive who can properly vocalise
    what
    is Bill Murray.
    You definitely have something there. I can’t think of another actor with more what-ness, except perhaps Buster Keaton.

  43. I realize this is not on topic but I am fascinated by the phrase “an odd subject for TAL.” I can’t quite figure out whether it’s a contradiction in terms or a tautology.
    Well, TAL is pretty much defined by topics you don’t hear about on every other show, and the economic crisis is something you hear about on every other show. Plus TAL tends to go for personal stories, not politico-economic exegesis.

  44. Yeah, I was going to propose Buster Keaton too.
    I’m reminded of the difficulty I had in trying to write a paper about where and how “and” could be used as a conditional in OE and ME. You know, as when Clytemnestra says, “how shall we dispatch him, and he come home?” I never got anywhere because I couldn’t figure out any way of dredging for examples, though I knew I’d seen them from time to time.

  45. “what” reminds me of the use of “This.”, always capitalized and punctuated as a one-word sentence, as an expression of vehement agreement following quoted material. The connotation seems to be something along the lines of “This hits the nail on the head” or “This needs to be said more often”. It’s often followed by further sentences elaborating the reasons for agreement, but not always.
    I don’t recall ever seeing “This.” used this way prior to the past year or so, but that is probably just a recency illusion on my part; I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s older. Nor have I ever heard it in spoken conversation; I think it’s just a written expression, whose operation requires reference to a visible block of text. But that may just be because I don’t hang out with the right people.
    In any event, it’s become popular in blog comments and LiveJournal very recently, and I’ve gone from just being annoyed by it to watching its emergence with interest.
    The unpunctuated “what” reminds me of Dinosaur Comics too.

  46. Actually, Bill Murray isn’t the actor who comes to mind for me: it’s David Tennant.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TozoL_P0804

  47. Speaking of online discourse markers… Has anyone investigated the rise of “which” as a discourse marker in fan forums and the like? I’m talking about “which” followed by an independent clause or interjection rather than a relative clause. It’s been common on sites like Television Without Pity for quite some time now, as a search on “which yeah|wow|yay|ew” reveals.

  48. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    I suppose, Ben Zimmer, this is a good example of writing which is illustrative of dialog, a phenomenon that has advanced by leaps and bounds because of the internet in general and, especially now, because of blogs. I know that my written style has become much more like my way of speaking because someplace like here it is used in a conversational way that it never was before.

  49. Could be, Mr. Crown, but I have a feeling that the folks who write “Which, yeah” online don’t necessarily use that in natural speech, or at least not with the same frequency as they would in online discourse. In this way, it’s akin to interjections like heh, meh, and feh (to say nothing of online-specific items like LOL and such). See Ben Yagoda’s Slate article for more on this point.

  50. I see I’ve misconstrued the original “what” – and I’m not sure I’ve seen that used.
    “This” and “which” sound wholly alien to me too …
    Thank you for the illustration of ‘pipiping’, though, that might come in handy.

  51. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Could be, Mr. Crown,
    Do, please, call me AJP, or even Arthur.

  52. What about Your Martian Majesty? Or is that only for your Martian underlings?

  53. Marsjesty?

  54. Arthur, Jeremy, Dyveke… who can keep track, really? :->

  55. John Emerson says:

    Ben Z., “which” in that usage was rather extensively discussion awhile back, but I can’t remember where.
    Just Google “which”

  56. John Emerson says:

    Ben Z., “which” in that usage was rather extensively discussion awhile back, but I can’t remember where.
    Just Google “which”

  57. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Dyveke’s the one I’m not, that’s my wife. I’ll answer to any of the others. There are no Martian underlings. To my knowledge I am the only Martian, and that’s only been since last August 1; before that I was the same species as the rest of you. There’s nothing to stop you all from ruling planets if you would like to, I expect there are more than enough to go round, but some people might have to start looking at other galaxies soon. It’ll become as difficult as trying to find an apartment in NY if everybody wants to be close to our sun.

  58. An excellent colleague of mine (search for the combination of “fossil bolus” and “duck compression”) instead uses the following one-liner in emails and IM:

    I find his practice more elegant and less ambiguous (no sonic vestiges to muddy the waters), and, for anyone who reads many comic books, instantly graspable, insofar as a studied blank look is ever graspable.

  59. “&helip;” is good.
    So is “HAH”.
    Duck compression? Is that what they call Canard au sang these days?

  60. Re the interrobang, I have to agree that while I really like the idea of having a unitary symbol to convey that sense, I find “‽” itself somewhat lacking. Not so much in that it’s ugly, per se, as that typographically it’s hard to come up with a glyph that’s sufficiently distinct from “?”, particularly at small point sizes.
    As to why it never took off (beyond the above): it’s only really useful where you have a conversation in text. It’s not impossible to write by hand, but I doubt it would spread beyond the private use of individual pairs of letter writers. A few interrobang-delimited lines of dialogue in popular novels could have done a lot to establish it, but I suppose there’s a certain conservatism about this sort of thing in print, and any writers who might have liked the idea didn’t care enough to force it through. Really, I feel like the natural environment for it is online, but it’s hardly convenient to type; even if your text is in a suitably Unicode format (which has only recently become common), there’s no ‽-key on any standard keyboard.

  61. a.J.P. Crown says:

    Although I can distinguish every other letter and sign the interrobang’s just a fuzzy blob at this scale. Hopeless. And what a fun job it was for a graphic designer: design the interrobang!

  62. It seems to me that if someone had come up with a way to study this definitively, they too would have been struck by the difficulty in finding data. Therefore, the way to find their work online is to Google for “if you google what” or something like that.

  63. Little Britain’s Sebastian comes to my mind immediately. Here’s a small clip, the WAT is at 00:37
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gd7qZjVlM1o

  64. I’m not sure Dearime is right in saying “You what?” “used to be said” among the vulgar English – “yerwot?” is still pretty common in the more cockneyised (rather than Estuary) parts of London, I suspect. Certainly, though, I agree it matches in meaning LH’s “what”

  65. What about Southern American “do what now?”?

  66. I hadn’t noticed this at all, but will start using it right away

  67. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    I remember first hearing ‘yerwha?’ (non-rhotic, obviously) on “Coronation Street” in the mid nineteen-sixties. At that time it wasn’t being used in the south of England (to my knowledge). It was only a northern (Manchester?) thing.

  68. David Marjanović says:

    But then again, I and others around me have been known to say “lol” out loud.

    Many people seem to. Recent comment on the Bremer Sprachblog: “Ich hörte schon vor Jahren Menschen lollen.”

  69. In emoticon, I think the flat ‘what’ is rendered
    -_-

  70. He seems a bit dozy, Felix.
    ‘_’

  71. yeah “wat” is used most commonly online
    “hey dude i just accidently a whole bottle of coke and now its stuck”
    “wat”

  72. I’ll pile on a bit late here, to note that when conveying
    what
    in an IM setting, I have used o_o as an emoticon in the past, as opposed to O_O or o_O (outright shock and disturbed puzzlement, respectively). These days I actually just opt for
    what
    though sometimes with a period to emphasize the mulishness of refusing to ask for explanation. If verbalizing, it’s a short, flat delivery – an error beep.

  73. `,:|
    seems to me an appropriate ‘what’ emoticon. Also, the David Tennant clip is a great example of different whats. He has a few “what?!”s but the last one is definitely a ‘what.’

  74. `,:|
    seems to me an appropriate ‘what’ emoticon. Also, the David Tennant clip is a great example of different whats. He has a few “what?!”s but the last one is definitely a ‘what.’

  75. Does somebody remember in which circumstances George III, in ‘The Madness of King George’, utters his usual “what what”?
    Your Marsjesty?
    However, a BBC article argues that “[the king's] memoirs include no mention of the phrase George III is famed for – the exclamation “what! what!” at the end of every sentence.” Well, maybe he just said it.

  76. John Emerson says:

    Most people don’t note down their own tics and peculiarities, which seem perfectly normal to them.
    George III was very friendly to the scientist/aphorist Lichtenberg, though apparently Lichtenberg never really understood why.

  77. John Emerson says:

    Most people don’t note down their own tics and peculiarities, which seem perfectly normal to them.
    George III was very friendly to the scientist/aphorist Lichtenberg, though apparently Lichtenberg never really understood why.

  78. Never seen this before but what immediately springs to mind is Lisa Simpson in ‘Bart’s inner Child’. When Brad Goodman the self help guru says to the crowd that Bart is the inner child he’s been talking about, it cuts to Lisa who just says what.

  79. I think of the guy in this twix commercial, although he has a little bit of California surfer twinge in there.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQJ2SegGWyc

  80. Gollum does my favourite “what” at 1.42:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLvIFRNbqOs
    I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it used in southpark too.
    I think the criteria for this type of what is that it requires the use of both ? and !, and in doing so, becomes neither an enquiry or an explanation, just an expression of a state of mind.

  81. Those lil john skits by dave chappelle could be the origin, no? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3rLX9Z36FM

  82. Whoa, email addresses submitted here aren’t just for Mr. Hat?
    If it is not too much trouble, please, edit mine out of that last comment; I’d really rather not publish it!

  83. No trouble at all.

  84. I think the “wat” derivation comes from an image meme, and a similar image, I think, is what helped to spawn the “what” meme.
    The first time I encountered
    what
    was on an image I saw posted somewhere, which people had titled “Tank Cat” — the image alone is here: http://i14.photobucket.com/albums/a317/worthchops/treadcat.jpg
    If that link doesn’t translate: it looks like a Photo-shopped together image of a somewhat portly cat, lying on its belly, but with tank treads for legs, and sitting on a beach near a jungle in flame in the background. It’s just a collection of “this makes no sense” imagery. Someone took that image and finished it off by just posting the word WHAT in giant red letters above the cat.
    And people fell in love with the image and ran with it, posting that image to convey that kind of “I’m just gobsmacked” bafflement.
    And then, this being the Internet, people started just using the
    what
    And then, this also being the Internet, people started then coming up with their own pictures. And one of them that someone came up with was a photo of the Angkor Wat temple complex, with the word
    wat
    Over it — and they used that image in place of the “Tank Cat” one.
    Anyway, that’s how I think this all spread.

  85. This chatlog is the true origin of “wat”, at least as far as its use in image macros:
    http://img505.imageshack.us/img505/4706/watcm1.jpg

  86. not_on_display says:

    o_O

  87. Hey, n_o_d, fancy meeting you here!

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