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"Guess what?" "What?" "THAT'S what!"
September 9, 2008 7:22 AM   Subscribe

When I was a kid (in the early 70s), this baffling "riddle" was all the rage in the schoolyard: A: "Guess what?" B: "What?" A: "THAT'S what!" I thought this was a quirky but of Southern Indiana nonsense, but my wife -- who hails from Alabama -- also remembers it from her youth. What does it mean? What's its origin?

Just to be clear: one kid walks up to another and says, "Guess what?"

"What?" asks the second kid (the straight man).

"THAT'S what!" says the first.

The last line was always said in a "gotcha" voice, is if the second kid was a moron and should have known the answer all along.

So I get that it's a weird sort of schoolyard insult/trick. And I can appreciate the absurdity of it (the nonsense quality). But I still feel like I'm missing something. And I'm sure that I -- and most of the kids who engaged in this ritual -- had no idea what it meant. We just did it like we recited certain nursery rhymes without knowing what they meant.

Does anyone know the origin? I'm surprised it co-existed in both Indiana and Alabama. Presumably, it existed it other places, too. I'm wondering if (maybe in some altered form) it comes from some pop-culture comedy show from the time -- maybe something like "Laugh-in."
posted by grumblebee to Society & Culture (53 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
It occurred to me that maybe the original riddle contained a gesture:

A: Guess what?

B: What?

A: [Kicks B.] THAT'S what!

That makes more sense, but if a gesture was part of the original, it had vanished by the time my schoolmates started saying the riddle.
posted by grumblebee at 7:27 AM on September 9, 2008


We did it in New Jersey, too, in the 80s. I would have guessed that the origin was PeeWee Herman, for some reason (I never watched it), but I don't suppose that's possible if you were doing it in the 70s.
posted by amro at 7:38 AM on September 9, 2008


We never had any sort of kick or punch that accompanied the riddle when I was growing up. I have no insight into the origins, but I can verify that it was alive and well in mid-70s/early 80s Michigan.
posted by Stewriffic at 7:39 AM on September 9, 2008


See also: "Guess what? What? Chicken butt." Repeated frequently, I think on South Park.
posted by Nelson at 7:39 AM on September 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


I don't think you're likely to find anything approaching a meaning for this joke (which I knew of in St. Louis, and I'm sure was pretty universally distributed), and I doubt that there was ever any more to it than that. It strikes me that the joke is more the lack of a joke than anything else.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:40 AM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I remember something similar as a school kid in Australia - THAT was a noogie, kick, pinch or poke in the belly. No idea of the origin, though, just another data point for kids being stupid everywhere.
posted by goo at 7:42 AM on September 9, 2008


Maybe contact this guy (warning, music), whose blog is titled "Guess what? That's what!" and see what he thinks.

On preview, yeah, I don't think it has meaning beyond "HA! There is no punchline!." The spread of these playground games enthralls me, though.
posted by Stewriffic at 7:43 AM on September 9, 2008


That nonsense riddle was around in the 70s in DC Metro too.

(I first heard the "chicken butt" version from Macaulay Culkin on SNL, if memory serves.)
posted by headnsouth at 7:45 AM on September 9, 2008


I can't believe I'm actually sitting here trying to reason this out. My inclination is to agree with others that there is no meaning to this script. However, if you must have some, here is a hypothesis.

If you look at the riddle literally, Person A gives an instruction: Guess "what."

Person B unwittingly follows this instruction by saying "What."

Person A then mocks Person B for having obeyed an order without realizing it: "You just said what!"

I highly doubt that any child who did this to you ever had that thought process during this interaction, but if it makes you sleep better at night, I think it's at least a mildly plausible interpretation.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 7:50 AM on September 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


Wasn't the "chicken butt" thing in the movie Suburbia, too? I remember being vaguely confused by it when I saw that movie when I was 13.

I'm actually sort of intrigued by how widespread kid folk culture is in general. For instance, I know people who grew up clear across the U.S. from me and learned the same violent songs of schoolyard carnage that I did. Presumably, we didn't get those from pop culture, because I can't imagine that any kids' T.V. show was going to feature songs about shooting your teacher.
posted by craichead at 7:50 AM on September 9, 2008


Chicken butt. Provided constant amusement in grade school in Detroit in the 60s. Just a "gotcha" thing.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 7:55 AM on September 9, 2008


I remember there being more to the "chicken butt" version. After the "guess what" lines, something like:

"Guess where?"
"Where?"
"Underwear!" (I think)

I think there was a "Guess when?" line, too, but I can't recall the "punch line".
posted by backseatpilot at 8:04 AM on September 9, 2008


I remember something similar as a school kid in Australia - THAT was a noogie, kick, pinch or poke in the belly.

That was our version too (Massachusetts, 70's).

"Guess where?"
"Where?"
"Underwear!" (I think)


I believe you mean:

"What were you eating under there?"
"Under where?"
"HAHAHAHAHAHA"
posted by Koko at 8:14 AM on September 9, 2008


The "Guess what?" nonsense was popular in the early 70s on the schoolyards of northwestern PA too. I'm not sure, but it might have come with a punch in the arm.
posted by booth at 8:21 AM on September 9, 2008


My grandfather (who lived his entire life in Scotland) used to do the "Guess what?", "What?", "That's what" thing all the time (early 70's...long before PeeWee). It's definitely not local to your area.
posted by rocket88 at 8:22 AM on September 9, 2008


This was one of my absolutely favorite bits of Space Ghost.
posted by nushustu at 8:26 AM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Minnesota, 1976-1979 or so.
posted by thilmony at 8:32 AM on September 9, 2008


No idea of its origin, but we definitely did it in San Francisco in the late 1960s-early 1970s. A favorite variation was "Guess what?" "Chicken butt!"
posted by chez shoes at 8:40 AM on September 9, 2008


I think it's a kind of Zen koan of the playground, along the lines of:

A: Do you know what one hand clapping sounds like?
B: No.
A: (slaps B's face) There you go.
posted by Phanx at 8:52 AM on September 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


I think this is one of those jokes all humans are born with an innate knowledge of. It lies dormant until age 6 or 7 and then explodes with a vengeance all over the playground. Some kids' genes blossom earlier than others, which is why there's always that one kid in your class who knows all of this stuff before you do. See also: cooties, that MASH matchmaking game. It's the only way to explain why it was brand new when you heard it in the 70s in Indiana and brand new when I heard it in the 90s in Georgia.
posted by phunniemee at 8:53 AM on September 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


Don't know the origin, but I remember it from when I was a kid on Long Island, late-60's, early 70's. Can't quite remember if the "that's what" came with a punch or kick, though.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 8:56 AM on September 9, 2008


We did it in Ontario, it seems pretty universal.

My wife had a variant, although it was confined mostly to her university roommates:

Guess what?
What?
Chicken butt!
posted by GuyZero at 9:01 AM on September 9, 2008


The "Guess what?" riddle/joke was common in the schoolyards of central Kansas in the 70s and 80s too, but verbal only (no punch/kick).

The only riddle/joke I remember that had a punch/kick accompanying the punchline was this one:

Person A: "Do you want a Hertz Donut?"
Person B: "What's a Hertz Donut?"
[Person A punches/kicks Person B]
Person A: "Hurts, don't it?"
posted by amyms at 9:06 AM on September 9, 2008


Massachusetts, early 70s.

There were a lot of these surreal jokes floating around--the endless "Knock knock" chain ("Knock knock." "Who's there?" "Knock knock." "Who's there?") which sometimes just kept going until someone shouted "SHUT UP" and sometimes ended in "Orange." "Orange who?" "Orange you glad I didn't say 'Knock knock' again?"
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:12 AM on September 9, 2008


Help, I can't stop talking!'s answer is what I always thought the joke was about. In fact, I was surprised to see that this doesn't appear to be the obvious explanation for everyone. It's not a nonsense joke like "guess what?" "chicken butt!" -- it's about guess what versus guess "what".
posted by klausness at 9:13 AM on September 9, 2008


And no discussion of childhood Dada humor would be complete without "No soap, radio!"
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:14 AM on September 9, 2008


It's not a nonsense joke like "guess what?" "chicken butt!" -- it's about guess what versus guess "what".

Oh, you're saying that it's a metalinguistic joke. Like another joke that was popular at the time:

Joker: Ms. Wojciehowicz lives in Ouagadougou. How do you spell it?
Foil: I have no idea.
Joker: I-T.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:17 AM on September 9, 2008


Going even further back:

Two polar bears are sitting in a bathtub. The first one says, "Pass the soap." The second one says, "No soap, radio!"

Moral of the story: I doubt the OP's joke has an origin. Anti-humour is as old as its evil twin.
posted by spamguy at 9:26 AM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think this is one of those jokes all humans are born with an innate knowledge of. It lies dormant until age 6 or 7 and then explodes with a vengeance all over the playground. Some kids' genes blossom earlier than others, which is why there's always that one kid in your class who knows all of this stuff before you do.

Pshaw. Everyone knows that playground culture is really the work of cannibalistic mole men.
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:38 AM on September 9, 2008


When I was in school, the "chicken butt" variant was so common within my social circle that any time someone said "Guess what!" someone else would immediately respond "Chicken butt!". It was commonly followed by "Guess why!" and "Chicken thigh!" and less commonly by "Guess whipple!" and... well, you can see where this is going.
posted by owtytrof at 9:49 AM on September 9, 2008


what's the capital of thailand?
punch the guy in the groin
BANG COCK
posted by alkupe at 9:54 AM on September 9, 2008


Never heard "That's what" variant until college and Space Ghost. "Chicken Butt" was the thing in mid-to-late 80's southwestern Virginia.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:38 AM on September 9, 2008


It's not a nonsense joke like "guess what?" "chicken butt!" -- it's about guess what versus guess "what".

Just because you happen to like that interpretation does not make it the truth. A poll of 1,000 fifth graders would find an average of 0.5 who came up with it. Ergo, it's a nonsense joke.
posted by languagehat at 10:41 AM on September 9, 2008


I'm assuming the most reasonable explanation for a meme like this propagating (around the world!) is kids transferring from one school to another. That coupled with the meme having some sort of intrinsic appeal. Dumb as it is, there's something satisfying about Guess what! What? THAT'S what.
posted by grumblebee at 11:02 AM on September 9, 2008


This seems to be one of those bits of arcana that are known only to children. It seems there is a an extensive oral tradition among kids, knowledge passed from one generation to the other over millenia. Could be a fascinating topic of study.
posted by mutrux at 11:06 AM on September 9, 2008


knowledge passed from one generation to the other over millenia.

The weird thing is that one generation of kids CAN'T pass something to another generation. By the time the new generation is old enough to receive info, the older one is grown up. Unless we're talking about slightly-older siblings.

I said the "guess what" thing in elementary school, but if I had kids, I doubt (at 43), I'd pass it onto them.
posted by grumblebee at 11:12 AM on September 9, 2008



The weird thing is that one generation of kids CAN'T pass something to another generation.


Why not? There's a steady stream of kids in elementary school. It's not like they close the schools every few years because all the kids grow up.
posted by GuyZero at 11:57 AM on September 9, 2008


Guess why?
why?
Chicken Thigh!
posted by Arbac at 12:15 PM on September 9, 2008


The weird thing is that one generation of kids CAN'T pass something to another generation. By the time the new generation is old enough to receive info, the older one is grown up.

My sister-in-laws have both spent endless hours teaching their kids all the school-yard lore they knew: cat's cradles, rhyming songs, skipping patterns. My contributions have been on the order of orgami water bombs and the like, but then I knew the boys' lore not the girls'.
posted by bonehead at 12:53 PM on September 9, 2008


We did this in Southern California, mid-80s.
posted by pmbuko at 1:02 PM on September 9, 2008


If I were going to overthink it, I'd say that it's a bit of an initiation.

If you say "Guess what" and the response is "what", "THAT'S what!" is the "you're out of the loop" response. However, if you say "Guess what", and the response is "THAT'S what", then the responder anticipated where you were going, and it's confirmation that they're "in the loop."

It reads a little better with the "chicken butt" version; "Guess what?" "Chicken Butt!" is a quick call-and-response exchange that two people can do, that confirms they're on the same wavelength, but "Guess what?" "what?" "Chicken butt!" simultaneously makes the responder understand they're not on the same wavelength, and teach them how to be on the same wavelength.

/overthought
posted by davejay at 1:07 PM on September 9, 2008


I heard the "chicken butt" and "that's what" in the 70's in South Carolina. It was nearly as popular as "Are you a PT?"
posted by pointystick at 2:11 PM on September 9, 2008


"Are you a PT?"

yes?

"You're a Public Toilet?"

I can't remember what we said if the answer was "no"

Detroit/80s
posted by indiebass at 2:26 PM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


The weird thing is that one generation of kids CAN'T pass something to another generation. By the time the new generation is old enough to receive info, the older one is grown up. Unless we're talking about slightly-older siblings.

Groups of children aren't easily demarcated into generations, though. There are seven-year-olds and seven-and-a-half-year-olds and eight-year-olds and eight-and-a-half-year-olds, etc.

Anyway, there was a visiting scholar at my university last year who worked on cultural transmission in children (it's a popular area of study in France, so I hear.) What's really interesting is that the transmission of childhood games and rhymes is remarkably stable over generations -- much, much more stable that the transmission of concepts among adults -- and despite what one might think, it happens largely without any adult influence. People interested in this topic have found playground games in France that are virtually the same as games that were played in the medieval ages. Or consider Ring Around the Rosie, which was supposedly invented before the 1800s. The person visiting my university was investigating why cultural transmission among children was so particularly stable.

Who knows? Maybe the "That's What!" game found its origins in the Renaissance!
posted by painquale at 2:48 PM on September 9, 2008


I remember "that's what!" from the 80s in St. Louis area, for another data point. For some reason, the chicken-butt version is much stronger in my memory, though. As owtytrof mentioned above, there were usually followup questions involved, such as guess why (chicken thigh!), guess who (chicken poo!) and either guess wipple or guess wenis, either of which was good for making up non-sequitor answers for (often involving the other kid's mom)...
posted by mysterpigg at 3:07 PM on September 9, 2008


kids transferring from one school to another

I think it's older siblings and older kids.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 6:00 PM on September 9, 2008


This seems to be one of those bits of arcana that are known only to children. It seems there is a an extensive oral tradition among kids, knowledge passed from one generation to the other over millenia. Could be a fascinating topic of study.

Guess you haven't seen Codename: Kids Next Door.

"THAT'S WHAT" came with a punch or a kick, so did a "jinx". Southwestern Virginia, late 70s.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:14 PM on September 9, 2008


Q: Are you PT?
A: No
Q: You're not potty trained?!
posted by agropyron at 10:00 PM on September 9, 2008


Hey, anybody want some ABC gum? Anyone? Anyone? Yeah?

Ewww. Already been chewed gum--that's gross. (By the way, your epidermis is showing.)
posted by whitewall at 6:29 AM on September 10, 2008


If you can find a copy, One Potato, Two Potato: The Secret Education of American Children is all about the transmission of American playground rhymes and games.

Or you could submit your rhyme to Playground Law and see if anyone responds.
posted by beefetish at 10:54 AM on September 10, 2008


We did it in Wisconsin too during the 70's. Perhaps its origin is a variant of the answer "that's why" when asked "why?" to something, and they refer to something that answers the question. This, though, allows you to pull a gotcha on someone, because they don't expect a similar response to that particular word, although it has something of the same auditory feel, so it almost makes sense, embarrassing the recipient.

Incidentally, I thought the "chicken butt" line was a humorous thing to run by my two year old recently, until she started conflating it with the "eat more chicken" line from Chick-fil-a, and went around saying, "eat more chicken butt." My wife was not amused.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:46 AM on September 10, 2008


It's not a nonsense joke like "guess what?" "chicken butt!" -- it's about guess what versus guess "what".

Just because you happen to like that interpretation does not make it the truth. A poll of 1,000 fifth graders would find an average of 0.5 who came up with it. Ergo, it's a nonsense joke.


I'd expect different results from the fifth graders. Maybe I was just an unusual fifth grader, but to the best of my recollection, that's how I thought the joke was obviously meant to be interpreted back when I first heard it (probably around fifth grade). I was also very fond of nonsense jokes at the time, but this didn't seem to be one of them. Now maybe some kids didn't get it and just repeated it as a nonsense joke, but I don't think that was its original meaning.

Oh, you're saying that it's a metalinguistic joke. Like another joke that was popular at the time:

Joker: Ms. Wojciehowicz lives in Ouagadougou. How do you spell it?
Foil: I have no idea.
Joker: I-T.


Exactly. This was not an uncommon type of joke at that age, and "guess what, that's what" seemed to be yet another in the genre.
posted by klausness at 11:53 AM on September 10, 2008


Hey Grumblebee! We did this in the early 70's growing up in Queens/Brooklyn/Upstate NY. If an 8 year old can have a delivery system for a punch, covered by a joke, it worked. Apparently from the above posts it worked well across the country.

"THAT'S WHAT!" was always the greatest delivery mechanism for a punch and a laugh, usually at my expense (or my little brother's!)

Chicken Butt was for a less mature comedic palette; no punching, why do it?
posted by Kensational at 10:40 AM on September 12, 2008


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