What is this southern US dialect phrase?
April 14, 2004 1:39 PM   Subscribe

I'm curious about a bit of (apparently) southern dialect. I'm not sure how to spell it, but it sounds like "do what?" or "du what?" or "d'what?" and seems to mean the same thing as "what?" or "huh?" or "say that again?" I'm from the Northeast, and the first time I heard this, it sounded really strange to me, like people were just adding "do" to the beginning of "what" for no reason. Does anyone know its origin, what part of the U.S. it's prevalent in, and what it means exactly? (Google was no help.)
posted by Tin Man to Writing & Language (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
i heard it used often when i lived in texas--mostly from folks north and west of austin. it's a substitute for "excuse me?" or "pardon me?" when someone says something you didn't catch or otherwise want them to repeat.

i never heard it once the entire three years i lived in alabama and the folks i know who were born and bred in north carolina never use it, so i'd say it's not a southern thing, but probably a texas thing.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:10 PM on April 14, 2004

I'm originally from Oklahoma, now living in Austin, and I've heard/used it my entire life.

"do what?"


"do WHAT, now?"

Your interpretation of it, as "come again?" "huh?" "Please clarify" is correct.

I'm guessing it started out as a shortened longer sentence, "He wanted to do WHAT, now?"
posted by mrbill at 2:16 PM on April 14, 2004

Here where I am (western North Carolina) it's very common. Also can be "Do what now?" It's used mostly when the speaker did not hear the previous statement clearly (often from inattention), similar to "pardon?" or "could you repeat that?" Its also used less commonly to express disbelief, or to request clarification. I could list some examples if you'd like. I have no idea as to it's origin or how widely the phrase is used outside of "these here parts."
posted by headless at 2:22 PM on April 14, 2004

I use it to, and I'm from Western Canada. Of course, I use a lot of idiomatic language and "voices" because I've watched a lot of movies ever since I was a little kid and I'm a bit of a clown.

The above answers pretty much cover it, as far as I know.
posted by The God Complex at 2:22 PM on April 14, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks, all. Headless, I wouldn't mind some examples, just out of curiosity.

I was also wondering if maybe the "do" at the beginning is a kind of softener, making it sound less abrupt than just "what"?
posted by Tin Man at 2:28 PM on April 14, 2004

Speaking of odd regionalisms, many folks from Cincinnati say "Please?" in this instance, as in "Please repeat yourself." It confused the hell out of me in college at Ohio State.
posted by me3dia at 2:31 PM on April 14, 2004

It is indeed a Texas thing. I have a few friends that say it, but not many. It seems to be more prevalent around the Austin area (Hill country), because it is rarely used here in Dallas.

and I thought Ya'll was bad enough.
posted by Benway at 2:32 PM on April 14, 2004

An example of use in Eastern North Carolina: do-what.com
posted by ewagoner at 2:37 PM on April 14, 2004

Reminds me of how English folk answer a question like:

"Will this joystick work with a Mac?"

this way:

"It should do."
posted by scarabic at 2:49 PM on April 14, 2004

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!".
posted by tabbycat at 2:50 PM on April 14, 2004

Forgive me for being so sterotypical
Example 1.
BOBBY-ANN: Cletus, I thought I tole you to get them beer cans outta the yard
CLETUS: (watching the Intimidator) Do what?

Example 2.
CLETUS: I just caught Jethro having at yore sheep in an unholy way!
BUBBA: (shocked) Do WHAT?!

Example 3.
JUNIOR: Shucks paw, all you gotta do is once you get to the end of a thread you type something in the little box and then hit preview then hit post and then the other people can read it and --
PA: (confused) Hold on son. Now do what now?
posted by headless at 3:24 PM on April 14, 2004

I've used it my whole life (lived in Tulsa and Texas), although I've tried to wean myself off of it, at least during work. It's one of the few regionalisms that has stuck with me, as I've never had anything close to a drawl or used "y'all" or anything like that. I didn't know it was so weird to a Yankee.
posted by Ufez Jones at 3:24 PM on April 14, 2004

I grew up in Central north carolina, and frequently heard it (and learned to use it myself). If anything, I think I hear it less here in Austin, but that might just be because I spend most of my time with other tech workers and more-educated people, who tend to be less colloquial in their speech.
posted by jammer at 3:33 PM on April 14, 2004

We use it here in Southeast North Carolina.

"Do -whut?"

Just a figure of speech.
posted by konolia at 4:12 PM on April 14, 2004

I live in Maryland a border state between the North and South and never heard it untill a few years ago and now it is very commonly used. Great example of how lexicon migrates I guess the south is winning.
posted by stbalbach at 4:52 PM on April 14, 2004

I spent a summer in Alabama, where I first heard the offending "dowhat." To me, it was like nails on a chalkboard. Not only did the expression make no sense at all to me, nobody could explain why they said it. Nobody seemed to even notice that they were saying it. Fixin' was another one that irked me.

Alabama was the only place I ever heard it, I lived in Austin for about a year and never heard it. I guess I was lucky?
posted by necessitas at 5:05 PM on April 14, 2004

This isn't a regionalism, more like something I picked up from my Dad, but a lot of times if I don't hear somebody right I'll just throw out a random interrogative, even if it doesn't make sense. So instead of just a plain old "what," "how's that," or "huh," I'll say "who?" or "where?" or "when?"

I figure that might be a reason for "do what?" Adds a little spice to the surface of everyday life.
posted by Khalad at 5:40 PM on April 14, 2004

Heard it all the time growing up in Central (Triangle area) NC.

And shame on you, benway: "Y'all" makes grammatical sense.

Though I'll agree that spelling it "ya'll" is just plain ignant, now...
posted by Vidiot at 6:05 PM on April 14, 2004

I've lived around the corner from where stbalbach lives my entire life and I have never heard anything like this :)

The most common thing I have started to hear everyone say is "have a guht one." Up until a few years ago it was pronounced "good."

posted by terrapin at 6:35 PM on April 14, 2004


Do what John? Do what John?
Come again do what?
Do what John? Do what John?
Do what? Do what? Do what?
Do where John? Do where John?
Wiv what, wiv whom and when?
Trific; realy trific.
Pardon; come again.
Do what John? Do what John?
Come again do what?
Do what John? Do what John?
Do what? Do what? Do what?
Do where John? Do where John?
Wiv what, wiv whom and when?
Trific; realy trific.
Pardon; come again.

In other news, I say 'd-what?' and 'y'all' and have a rather understated southern drawl to my voice, except I'm from Indiana. I subscribe to the theory that everyone who lives twenty miles or farther from a major metropolitan area all speak the same dialect: hick.
posted by sciurus at 7:09 PM on April 14, 2004

Growing up in eastern Tennessee, I heard this quite a bit. There seem to be two meanings:

1) do-wha? (said quickly) = Excuse me? I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch what you said, could you please repeat it?

2) dew-wuuuut? (slowly, drawn out) = Are you a complete idiot? Were you dropped on your head as a child? I can't believe you just said that. Please tell me you were just kidding and that I don't have to disclaim any association with you.
posted by ecrivain at 8:04 PM on April 14, 2004

> BOBBY-ANN: Cletus, I thought I tole you to get them beer cans outta the yard

No no, it's "Ah thought ah tole you to git that outboard motor outta the bathtub"
(Reply, "Aww honey, th' season don't open for two more weeks.")
posted by jfuller at 5:08 AM on April 15, 2004

Do what now?

I like in central NC now, and grew up in Delaware, and while I know I've heard and said "Do what?" I can't remember where it started. The southern Delaware accent is a weird combination of Maryland's Easter Shore and eastern NC, so that's probably why it's not weird to me.
posted by jennyb at 6:29 AM on April 15, 2004

Live. Not like. Although I like it fine, don't get me wrong.
posted by jennyb at 6:38 AM on April 15, 2004

I learned to say "kiss what!?" when someone garbles a sentence. I wonder if do-what has the same smart-ass origin.

I'm from a small part of the south located about an hour north of Detroit, called "Flint".
posted by Goofyy at 8:18 AM on April 15, 2004

I work with someone from Texas who says do what?. And, as I'm somewhat of a chronic mumbler, I hear it a lot. It drives me crazy when she says it though, it makes me feel like she's misunderstood what I was saying and that she's assuming I wanted her to do something for me, as in "you want me to do what?!". So there's this weird presumtuous tone that I'm probably projecting onto it. I know I'm probably wrong, but it still irks me...
posted by soplerfo at 8:34 AM on April 15, 2004

Thanks for posting this, Tin Man; I'd never heard it, and this thread and the one I posted at LH are giving me a good idea of how widespread it is. Ya learn something every day!
posted by languagehat at 9:13 AM on April 15, 2004

I say it, and didn't even realize it was a regionalism. Although in my experience there is a slight connotational difference between "Do what?" and "Huh?" The latter can mean either "I don't understand," or "I didn't hear what you said," whereas in my mind, "Do what?" or "Do what, now?" is properly used only in response to instructions or explanations or directions that don't make sense to the listener.
posted by vraxoin at 10:59 AM on April 15, 2004

Ecrivain's usage guide paralells the way I learned it in Southern Indiana. Sciurus, are you from there?

I noticed also that 'Do what?' and 'Needs fixed' are often used by the same speakers.

Regarding the rurality of the usage, well, sure; but also the hills-n-hollers of the lower Midwest are fairly Appalachian in terms of shared culture and settlement heritage, which provides an interesting potential link to the UK - East Anglia usage.
posted by mwhybark at 11:14 AM on April 15, 2004

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