Q: I’ve noticed a proliferation of “What happen?” (instead of “Excuse me?” or “Come again?”) among younger friends in NYC (I’m 42). Also worth noting, it’s often collapsed into “Wha’ happen?” I suspect a Hispanic or Caribbean influence.
A: A teacher once emailed us to report that his students in the Bronx would say, “What happened?” or “Wha’ happen?” when they failed to hear something he’d said. Some of their parents would say it too.
A search of the Internet finds only a sprinkling of examples, probably because the expression is more common in speech than in writing.
We can’t say where or when this usage first happened, what influenced it, or whether it will have staying power.
But we can discuss expressions like these that a listener uses to ask a speaker to repeat or elaborate on something just said.
The linguist Dwight L. Bolinger coined a name for the usage: “reclamatory questions.”
In his 1989 book Intonation and Its Uses: Melody in Grammar and Discourse, Bolinger discusses the rising and falling tones in such questions.
We’ve written before on the blog about the practice of saying “What?” when you didn’t quite catch what somebody said.
This usage is occasionally criticized (mostly by our elders) as rude, though it has a long history.
We have lots of ways of saying “Huh?” Some of our 19th-century ancestors used “What say?” or “How?” when their ears didn’t catch some bit of conversation.
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says “What say?” and “How?” emerged in 19th-century America as synonyms for “What?” or “What did you say?”
“What say?” might be seen as a shorter version of “What did you say?” And it seems likely that “How?” is a shorter form of “How’s that?” or “How’s that again?”
Now we apparently have a new variation on the theme, “What happened?” or “What happen?” or the even shorter “Wha’ happen?”
None of the slang reference sources we use include this usage.
But Cassell’s says three similar questions with another meaning (“What happen?” … “Wha’appen?” … “What happening?”) originated in the 1950s among blacks in the West Indies and the UK.
These questions, according to Cassell’s, are used as “a general form of greeting, hello, how are you?”
The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the use of “What’s happening?” as a greeting originated among black Americans in the 1950s.
These slang dictionaries no doubt will catch up with the reclamatory usage.
Meanwhile, we can add “What happened?” and “What happen?” and “Wha’ happen” to “What?” and “What say?” and “How?” and “Huh?” and “Eh?” and “Mmm?” and “Yo?” and “Come again?” and “Whazzat?” and “Say what?” and all the rest!
Our hearing may occasionally be faulty, but fortunately there’s no shortage of reclamatory questions.
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