Arnold Zwicky of Language Log has reported on a long-needed investigation into the history of the cliché (or, to a Language Logger, “snowclone”) What is this X of which you speak? I’m astonished to learn it was already being bandied about in Usenet in 1983:

There has been a lot of net discussion about “toilet paper” recently. Just what is this “toilet paper” of which you speak? Where can I find it? (from net.misc, 24 August 1983 (link))

But there doesn’t seem to be an actual, identifiable original from which the parodies were derived: “The origin seems to be in the collective memory of big-screen and small-screen science fiction from the ’50s and ’60s.” There is also discussion of the spurious quotation “Kiss”? What is “kiss”?. Now if only the Loggers would get to work on alternative negations.

Update (August 2015). Commenter charlieO has found a superb antedate from Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796): “Father, you amaze me! What is this love of which you speak?” The novel was wildly popular in its day, and it seems reasonable to assume that parodies of Gothic novels (such parodies were also wildly popular) regularly featured this template, which survived to make it into Douglas Adams and a new generation of snarky youth. I note that according to Wikipedia the novel was “written in ten weeks, before [Lewis] turned 20”; he probably would have enjoyed Douglas Adams himself.


  1. OK, but this is a true story, told to me by an old, trusted friend who was one of the three characters in the piece.
    He was involved in a Vedanta group and was in charge of going to the airport to pick up the swami (who happened to be from Fiji, where there’s a significant Hindu population).
    At 4:00 a.m. the swami was hungry and not sleepy, so my friend decided to take him to a notorious restaurant in the neighborhood called Quality Pie. This was a dive where the sketchy night people hung out. Not dangerous, but weird.
    The waitress, a stereotypical bull dyke, swaggered up to take their order. The swami asked my friend what he recommended, and my friend (for whom the whole experience was really a bit odd) said “Um… well, the pie is good.”
    The swami looked at him and asked in pleasantly accented English, “Pie? And what is pie?”

  2. Serefina says

    Just because I’m not a native speaker … but an eternal learner I would have said “What is this “toilet paper” which you speak of?”
    instead of “… of which you speak”
    Can anybody explain me the nuance on difference there is between the two sentences?
    Whic one is the “correct” one? Thanks …

  3. “Of which you speak” sounds more literary/ “proper” and maybe a little archaic.
    This is partly because some grammarians forbid ending a sentence with a preposition (“of”). This has been one of the contentious issues of prescriptive grammar for God knows how long; Winston Churchill made a joke about it.

  4. aldiboronti says

    “My little man, where do you come from? What is this ‘where I live,’ of which you speak?”
    The Little Prince, 1943, Antione de Saint-Exupery
    Of course, the question is, is the construction in the original French, and, if not, from when does this translation date?

  5. I think we have a winner.

  6. Yes, that’s an excellent find.

  7. It’s not in the French, which has simply:
    D’où viens-tu mon petit bonhomme? Où est-ce “chez toi”?

  8. It would seem the formula is then due to Katherine Woods, the first translator into English in 1943, there is now a new translation by Richard Howard published in 2000 which instead has “Where do you come from, little fellow? Where is this ‘where I live’ of yours?”

  9. Screw Richard Howard. Not every time, I like him, but this one time.
    “The Little Prince” had the kind of circulation (beloved childrens book) which would make that “meme” (sorry! sorry!) spread very quickly once it was first used.

  10. [I posted a version of these comments to ADS-L earlier today.]
    I think we need to stick closer to the one form “What is this X of which you speak?” to find a useful answer. It is entirely possible a world of Anglophones learned the phrase from a translation of The Little Prince, but I think the phrase’s more recent popularity is due to another source (which may very well have been influenced by Antoine de Saint-Exupery).
    In the comedic science fiction book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, copyright 1979, the hero, Arthur Dent, is taken to a the bowels of a hyperdimensional factory floor where a new Earth is being built. He is told by a scientist named Slartibartfast that the hyperdimensional beings in charge are mice (at least, that’s how they look in the factory’s dimension). Arthur replies,
    [start book quote, (Del Rey-Ballantine, New York, 2002) p. 109]
    “Look, sorry, are we talking about the little white furry things with the cheese fixation and women standing on tables screaming in early sixties sitcoms?”
    Slartibartfast coughed politely.
    “Earthman,” he said, “it is sometimes hard to follow your mode of speech. Remember I have been asleep inside this planet of Magrathea for five million years and know little of these early sixties sitcoms of which you speak.”
    [end book quote]
    A radio version of the series was broadcast first. The episode featuring the conversation quoted above, according to the information at Wikipedia (one of those Wikipedia entries where obsessive fans shine), was broadcast on Mar 22, 1978. I have listened to this episode and I do remember it containing the conversation quoted above—I even remember it being a particularly sublime moment, due mostly the the comic dryness of the actor playing Slartibartfast.
    I do think that both the radio version and the book were popular enough to act as the blasting cap for the larger explosion of the term’s recent popularity—in the specific “What is this X of which you speak?” form—at least among the geek set. I’d nominate Adams at least as the repopularizer—and among Americans, who do no not have a tradition of reading Antoine de Saint-Exupery, I’d nominate Adams as the popularizer.

  11. I’m interested but not convinced. I think you’re overestimating the popularity of Douglas Adams (among Americans), and I know you’re underestimating the popularity of The Little Prince — I’ve met many, many Americans who have practically memorized it, and if you visit a Barnes & Noble I think you’ll find large numbers of copies, which are not there because the store manager happens to be a fan. Sure, Adams is more popular among the geek set, but I’m also not convinced the geek set has the power to spread locutions among the populace at large. Furthermore, I’d be surprised if the locution was unknown or dormant before 1978, though admittedly my memories of the long-gone ’70s are shaky enough I can’t say with confidence that I was familiar with it before then. It still seems to me to be a general pastiche of half-remembered ’50s science fiction of the popular/lurid variety. But I await further developments with eager curiosity.

  12. I agree that Adams did not invent the phrase, but I would be surprised if he is not the reason for its popularity. I can’t believe Zimmer missed this – the radio show was hugely popular in Britain in the 70s. I think LH is underestimating the importance of Adams popularity in the US as well – the books sold in the millions. I’ve never met an American under the age of 45 in the entertainment or sofware industries who a deep fanatical love for the Little Prince, more than say for Charlotte’s Web, or any other children’s book. I’ve met many people in those industries who loved the Hitchhiker’s Guide and could quote it in detail. Since Zimmer’s research mostly refers to internet usage, and internet users in the 1980s certainly contained a high proportion of Hitchhikers’ fans , I think Adams is clearly the most likely suspect.

  13. Richard Hershberger says

    I too find the Douglas Adams vector very plausible. The phrase has to my mind a distinct geek air to it. I would expect it from the sort of person who can quote Python and have strong and reasoned opinions on the merits of the various Trek iterations. On the other hand, I can quote Python and discuss Trek, so perhaps I am suffering from a selection bias. Do people with no geek tendencies use this construction?

  14. It might also be meaningful to note that, when a Usenet poster writes “what is this toilet paper of which you speak?”, his meaning is a little closer to Slartibartfast’s than to the de St-Exupery narrator’s — the narrator knows what “where I live” denotes.

  15. I’ve never met an American under the age of 45…
    Ouch! Well, I’m the first to admit I’m growing increasingly out of touch, and I’m certainly willing to concede Adams is more popular than St-Ex these days.
    And Jeremy, you’re certainly correct about the shade of meaning; I don’t think St-Ex is the source of the current use (though I think my earlier comment might have implied that), I just found it an interesting early use. Clearly the only way to settle this is to do a search of pre-1978 material and see if this construction is used in the current sense, but that would be quite a chore.

  16. Folquerto says

    You will not believe me. I was educated with the Queen’s English with all its biases. I spoke it rather well. The first time I met with blacks from the States I was puzzled by their continuous use of a word sounding like “fucking”. I had never heard it. So I asked them, what does that word mean? What is fucking?

  17. Folquerto says

    I forgot to mention the stunned silence that followed my question.

  18. I got into Usenet in 1992 and I can assure you that a detailed knowledge of the works of Douglas Adams was extremely common online at that time, up there with Star Trek and ahead of Doctor Who, but perhaps not so widely beloved as Monty Python.

  19. I own The Little Prince in several languages but I’m ashamed to say I didn’t finish reading it. I did get far enough to remember this citation when aldiboronti posted it here.
    I also own The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in a couple of languages but have a longer history and deeper love for it than the Little Prince. It should be noted that it was first a radio play, which is still available as a recording. Unfortunately I only own the first tape and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t cover up to Magrathea. Following the radio play there was the beginning of the books. Douglas re-wrote the sections in the books which were done by a collaborator in the radio plays. After at least the first two books there was a hugely popular TV series on which Douglas also worked. I don’t have those to check the dialog. And in recent months there was finally the feature-film adaptation, again worked on by Douglas. I can’t recall if this quote was used there though.
    There is surely a large contingent besideds me who are familiar with both and I’d be willing to bet that Douglas had read The Little Prince.
    Now, Although I guess the senses aren’t exactly the same I don’t find them terribly different from each other either. I find them both to share a similar amusing quirkiness which I quite like.
    What I do find notable after all this rambling is that the samples in the Language Log article mirror Katherine Woods’s formula “What is this X of which you speak?”, and not Douglas Adams’s formula “I … know little of these X of which you speak.”
    I expect that both have made a healthy contribution to the meme and that neither should be underestimated. What might be interesting is to see if the meme exists in other languages and how far back they go. I wish I hadn’t lost my French copy of La guide galactique!

  20. I’ve found on that this sentence of Slartibartfast’s is changed in the feature film but the formula remains:
    … so that Slartibartfast no longer claims to “know little of these early sixties sitcoms of which you speak” but instead knows “little of this cheese of which you speak.”

  21. Here is the text of the orginal radio play where you can see that the quote was first broadcast on the 29th of March 1978.

  22. It seems I was a little hasty. There have been several translations of The Little Prince into English. Mine is a cheapie Wordsworth edition which seems to have been translated by Irene Testot-Ferry in 1995. It does contain the formula.
    Neither my German Little Prince nor my Hungarian Hitchhikers seem to have the formula by the way.

  23. aldiboronti says

    The translation which I referenced in my post above is definitely the one by Katherine Woods, as witness the site’s front page.
    I’d lay good odds that Adams knew The Little Prince. I’d lay the same odds that Katherine Woods did not originate the form. It would be quite at home in one of those late 19th/early 20th century historical novels that authors like Maurice Hewlett churned out.

  24. The disseminated intelligence and wisdom of crowds of Language Hat (TM) has done very well indeed on this question. My suggestion is that we now show some now socially consciousness and turn our energies to finding the way to world peace and a cure for cancer.

  25. I have found a remarkable solution to the problem of world peace, but this comment box is too small to contain it.

  26. I have always assumed that the history of this phrase runs somehow back to The Persians. Wasn’t there a standard school translation of it that had Darius’s widow say “What is this Athens, of which all men speak?”
    (–in the mouth of an Athenian actor, speaking an Athenian play in Athens, of course.) it seems to me to be the prototype of all such “what is this X of which you speak?” phrases.
    (but I googled it just now and found just one real hit, in an interview with John Kinsella. Maybe he and I just read the same introduction to the Persians when we were teenagers :->)

  27. My suggestion is that we now show some now socially consciousness and turn our energies to finding the way to world peace and a cure for cancer.

    One Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.
    Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible, stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever.

    I’m not sure if she was also working on the cancer thing though.

  28. Alternatively we could work on a super-weapon to kill all bad people with.

  29. Dropping in on a decade dead post, but another vector would have been C.S. Lewis would have known the Little Prince in his 1953 Narnia book the Silver Chair:

    “What is this sun that you all speak of? Do you mean anything by the word?”

  30. No post is ever dead any more! The Narnia quote is interesting but lacks the “of which you speak” form which is requisite here.

  31. I can’t find anything like “of which all mean speak” in any English translation of The Persians. What the Queen asks is not “What is Athens?” but the more prosaic “Where is Athens?”, to which the Chorus-leader replies that it is in the far west.

  32. (saved too soon)

    And the famous answer “They are the slaves of no men” is associated with a later question “Who is their master?”

  33. Another variation of this theme in today’s Dilbert.

  34. The translation from Aeschylus’s The Persians is quoted (and possibly mistranslated!) in Charles Alexander Robinson, 1959, Athens in the Age of Pericles p. 30: ‘…the Persian queen asks, “What is this Athens of which all men speak?” …’ Yay for Googable Bgooks!

  35. Yay indeed, and a fine find!

  36. Still curious — the phrase still has such a zing in my mind that I’m not satisfied … for some reason it sounds like a line from Homer Simpson’s mouth … ‘what is this “integrity” you speak of?’ or something, ha.

    However, as for first uses, the winner so far is from a comment here:

    –> this citation from matthew lewis’s The Monk (1796 or so) : ‘Father, you amaze me! What is this love of which you speak?’ This certainly precedes all the other refs. I’ve seen so far, and it’s not that far from gothic romance to sf parody! The novel was a huge and rather scandalous hit, so no surprise if this and other lines were widely parodied at the time.

    On page 187, toward the bottom of the page:

    Also from the same comments a near-hit from Life of Brian scene 25 ‘Who is this “Wodewick” to whom you refer?’

  37. David Marjanović says

    Still curious — the phrase still has such a zing in my mind that I’m not satisfied … for some reason it sounds like a line from Homer Simpson’s mouth … ‘what is this “integrity” you speak of?’ or something, ha.

    I find your ideas intriguing and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

  38. The Monk find is glorious, and I hereby declare it the provisional winner and champeen. I must say, this bit from the post made my heart sink:

    Another interesting article on the subject comes from “”: where a commenter brings up another obscure reference in the 20th century.

    Is The Little Prince now considered “obscure”?

  39. Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #8,169 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
    #7 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Teen & Young Adult > Literature & Fiction > Classics
    #15 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Children’s eBooks > Science Fiction, Fantasy & Scary Stories > Fantasy & Magic > Sword & Sorcery
    #18 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Children’s eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Classics

    Not quite obscure yet.

  40. Whew!

  41. Sword & Sorcery?

  42. Acts 17:19, KJV: “And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?” or Douay-Rheims, “May we know what this new doctrine is, which thou speakest of?” and most closely in the Quaker translation of 1813, “May we know what this new doctrine is, of which thou speakest?”

  43. Another excellent find!

  44. David Marjanović says

    or Douay-Rheims, “May we know what this new doctrine is, which thou speakest of?”

    Whoa! A stranded preposition! 🙂

  45. marie-lucie says

    Le Petit Prince: I don’t have a copy of the original at hand, but it seems to me that the English translations are much more literary than the original. The child has just mentioned chez moi “at home” (where I come from). The following question Où est-ce chez toi? could be translated simply as “Where is home?”, or at most, “Home, where is that?” Nothing suggests “which you speak of”, let alone “of which you speak”.

  46. Another possible source, which I have no basis for other than a hunch, is human contact narratives, like between Cortez and Moctezuma II (of which there are many retellings). I can almost hear [rando Indigenous character] saying to John Wayne’s character, “What is this money [or ‘God’ or whatever] of which you speak?”

Speak Your Mind