– Or: You what for what?

Yeah, uhh, this one is weird!  If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that this was a cut line from something Yoda tried to say in one of the Star Wars movies. “If into the security recordings you go, only what for will you find.”  Missed opportunity!

Or brings to mind everyone’s favorite Tasmanian Devil and the quote everyone knows from memory*: “What for you say you monkey when you have little powder puff tail like RABBIT, rabbit?”

In the context of the phrase “I’ll give you what for,” turns out it is neither of those things.  As much as we hope otherwise.  Because writing about the grammatical structure of whatever race Yoda is has got to be fun.  It would have been nice if George Lucas wrote -any- dialogue for Yaddle, though.  Same species as Yoda and also a member of the Jedi High Council.  But nope!  We’re left hanging.  Now all we have are disjointed phrases, a whole lot less trying and more doing, and whatever baby sounds Grogu continues to make.

Sorry, got a bit off topic there.

Back to the idiom!

Let’s get into the origin of the phrase, how it’s used, why it’s used, and whether or not it’s even relevant any longer.

* wait.  that’s just me?  oh.  erm.  see what it’s like having a brain filled with completely unessential nonsense?  great for the blog non-sequitur,  not quite as much for actual functioning in life.  also, taz is pretty darn awesome.

What does it mean to be on the receiving end of a What For?

The apparent origin of this phrase is attributed to a back and forth style conversation.  There is an implication that this is related to a form of punishment or scolding (does anybody actually ‘scold’ anymore?  sounds too much like a hot water burn) and is loosely centered around a phrase like so:

<Parent> You have done something super super bad and now I shall punish you.
<child> What for??
<Parent> What for? I’ll give you “what for!”  You punched a hole in the wall / slashed the family car’s tires / used the fabric scissors to cut snowflakes!  What for. I’ve got ten What-Fors for you right here.

Because seriously.  Have you ever used the fabric scissors to cut something that wasn’t fabric?  And like a week later your parent comes in and says “<ahem> Did you use my fabric scissors on something that wasn’t fabric?” knowing full well that the fabric scissors were used to cut something that wasn’t fabric because they just don’t -work- the way they used to. To deny the crime is futile, to admit to the crime is woeful punishment incarnate.  You lose either way, may as well fess up.


That’s the gist of it.  It is an announcement that something you really don’t want to happen to you is coming.  These days probably means someone is going to take your phone away for an extended period of time.  And really, would that suck so much?  Go read a book.

Earliest documented useses of “I’ll Give You What For”

This one took a bit of digging but it’s been fun trying to find sources!  I’ll throw some examples in here of early documented usage of the idiom of What For-ness .  Correctness of the documented usage could be in question, which is why I’m going to dump several examples so that some years from now when I come back and find that one of them was wrong, I can practice with the STRIKETHROUGH feature and be all like “Hey, Updated content!  Time for the SEO overlords to rescan, please and thank you.”  Or something to that effect.

Example 1

The Oxford English Dictionary cites the earliest known printed use back to 1873.  It is printed in an issue of ‘Routledge’s Young Gentleman’s Magazine’ of that year and contains the following note: “I’ll give you what for if it touches your lips.”  The context appears to be missing but the assumption I’m going on is that it has something to do with adult beverages and the lips belong to someone who would get carded in a New York minute.  You drink that beverage, you’ll wish you didn’t.  Or something to that effect.

Example B

In 1888, there is a literary example contained within the pages of “Colonel Quaritch, V.C.” (not venture capitalist) as written by H. Rider Haggard. The quote is as follows: “If I don’t make it to Boisingham, yes, and all England, too hot to hold you, my mother never christened me and my name ain’t George.  I’ll give you what for, my cuckoo, that I will!”

So uhh.  Yeah.  My name is George and I still don’t exactly know what’s happening all up in there.  I …. hmm.  Read it again a few times and I still can’t figure it out.

I wonder what the H stands for, anyway.  Heavy?  Hefty?  Hearty?  Hippopotamine? Healthful? Only the best riders for our Haggards.

Example iii

Fast forward to 1890. In a short story contained in a publication by name of “Indian Tales” (I’m sure there’s nothing bad happening in that publication nope nope nope nope </sarcasm>) you can find the following as penned by Rudyard Kipling: “‘Now,’ gasped Jakin, ‘I’ll give you what-for.’ He proceeded to pound the man’s features while Lew stamped on the outlying portions of his anatomy.”

The giving of the what foring is very clearly demonstrated as the heaping of abuse upon the receiving victim.  Also, seriously.  The outlying portions of his anatomy.  What in the actual?  Did his intestines fall out or something and now Lew is up there just stomping away and getting innards on his outards?  Who writes this stuff??

Example Δ

An 1984 entry into our lexicon comes from “Trillby” by Du Maurier.  Which sounds more like an early episode of Star Trek with the script written by David Gerrold: “The Trouble With Tribbles.”  Shave and rearrange a few letters, and Viola’s your uncle.  Not Swamp.  She ain’t having none of that.

Oh yeah, the quote: “Taffy . . . was a match for any maître d’armes in the whole French army, and Svengali got ‘WHAT FOR.’”

Poor Svengali.  Dude got jacked.

More recent example

This Example from the 1980s contains an interesting corporate story!  The following passage is within:

“To assess the customer experience, Sigoloff made surprise visits to the stores. One day he surreptitiously traced his initials in the dust covering a mirror for sale at a Wickes Furniture location in West L.A. When the mark was still there a week later, he hauled over the store manager. He didn’t fire the man, but gave him what for.”

There are many more but those were the ones that caught my eye as most interesting or plausible.

Anybody still giving anybody What For or have we moved on from it?

I’m pretty sure nobody at Hallmark is coming up with a “National Give What For Day” anytime soon.  Outside of a few fringe scenarios – including this ultra fringe blog – it seems like the use of that phrase has fallen out of favor as times have moved on.  These things happen.  Even ‘rekt’ is going to have its day someday.

Maybe used ironically somewhere?  The proverbial “hipster” is probably all over it like white on snow somewhere but the usage is just really not prevalent that I am able to see.  I can remember it being more common back in the 80s in popular television (or possibly syndicated reruns of older things.  my memory isn’t that great for that specific level of detail)

It is entirely possible that the last thing you ever ever read about the What For’ing is going to be this here blog right here right now.

Pour one out for the what for.  It had a good run.

-= george =-




Are we having fun yet?

About the Author

Straddling the line between the arts - voiceover, music composition, session performer, album mixing - and the world of durable medical equipment. Probably should have spent more time playing on the balance beam as a kid instead of obsessing over Commodore 64 games.

Subscribe? Superscribe? Surfacescribe?

….. circumscribe?

Where were we?

So yeah, fancy still yet one more thing in your inbox? I’d love to help facilitate that!  Please enter your email below to sign up for once-a-week mayhem.