“What for…” Analysis

On Sunday…
“Hey, I’m going to ask you a question. And I’d like a serious answer, but if you give me a silly one, that’s okay too.”

“Um, okay.”

“Okay, so, give me a topic.”



“No, I’ll think of something. What for?”

“What for? That works.”

“No, wait, what?”


The Linguist in me was happy to choose the small two words “what for” for its topic. Those two words were interesting. Plus, how was I going to write a post about those two words?

The first thought in my mind was: I can write about what something could be used for. But, I thought that was just boring. Everyone kinda knows what most somethings are used for.

My second thought was: Isn’t “what for” part of a saying about beating someone up?

On to Google:


“…to give someone what for” — (idiomatic, slang) To punish; to rebuke.

  • give someone a piece of one’s mind
  • let someone have it

And that was as far as my brain decided to take me…until my Linguist started thinking….

I think when it comes to something as random these two little words. I was thinking about where these words could have come from in terms of “to give someone what for”. Based on my own 3-minute-walk-of-an-analysis, those words were a question before they became mixed into the statement. This was the image I had in my head….

….a fight was about to break out, and the attackee asked the attacker “What for?” …as in: why do you want to fight me? And the attacker responded “I’ll show you what for.”

How much of a stretch is it that the “what for” two-word phrase became the noun in the final context of “to give someone what for”? This way it’s answering, showing or telling the “what for” reason the attacker wanted to fight the attackee. And fighting someone can be the same as when you “give someone a piece of one’s mind” or “let someone have it” as in the other synonym definitions.

So, after I wrote the above part of my post, I researched “what for”. What I found made me happy….

….I found that the phrase is Colloquial, from the second half of the 1800s, seems to be an alternative to “why” AND EXACTLY what I thought it stemmed from:

1) www.wordorigins.org

Mother: John, Go and clean your bedroom!
John: What for? (Why?)
Mother: I’ll give you ‘what for’!

2) english.stackexchange.com

I agree with etymonline that the expression originated as a brusque reply to someone you’ve just assaulted, who says “What [did you do that] for?”.

“I’ll give you what for!” is often used in a context where the speaker (assailant) has every reason to think the other person knows perfectly well why he was attacked. It doesn’t have to be in reply to anything at all.

Was I excited to read that it seems I was correct in my own analysis? Yes. Very. Not often can I get something as random as a topic such as “what for”, I get to make my own analysis, learn something AND find that I am as correct as I can be (with only a quick Google and not a thorough travel through language, of course). Never mind the fact that I wrote my analysis a good 20 minutes BEFORE I read the second answer.

My Linguist is happy.

Enjoy. And Reed.


****ευχαριστώ lovey for your random answer.

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