The Grammarphobia Blog

Really? Really?

Q: I wonder if you know where the new, slightly sarcastic, tic “Really? Really?” comes from.  I hear it mainly from young people, so it’s likely from some pop-culture source I don’t touch.

A: We hear the single sarcastic “Really?” quite a bit, but we haven’t noticed the repetitive usage. It doesn’t surprise us, though. In modern English, “really” has multiple uses—and some corresponding overuses.

For example, “really” is used nearly to death as an intensifier—that is, to be emphatic: “He’s really angry.” And when a single “really” isn’t intense enough, it’s doubled : “He’s really, really angry.”

(We’ve written before on the blog about the repeating of words for emphasis, a practice that’s been common for centuries.)

Other common uses of “really” express doubt (“I look good in orange? Really?”) or surprise (“I won the raffle? Really?”). And again, when a single “really” isn’t sufficiently doubtful or surprising, it’s doubled: “Really? Really?”

And, of course, there’s the sarcastic usage (“You have a 200 IQ? Really?”). We’re a bit surprised, however, that you’re hearing a doubling here. It seems to us that a second “Really?” would lessen the sarcasm.

The word “really” has other uses as well, of course. It can be used to express protest or dismay: “Really now! Five dollars for coffee?”

And it still retains its original, literal sense, in which it means in reality or in fact. In fact (if you’ll pardon the repetition), the word has had quite a history.

When it was first recorded in English in the 1400s, “really” had a strictly literal meaning—as the adverbial form of the adjective “real”—and it often had religious significance.

Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines the original word: “In reality; in a real manner. Also: in fact, actually.”

The word is still used this way, but in its early days it was frequently used “with reference to the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist,” the OED says.

Here, for example, is an early usage dated about 1450. It’s from a Middle English prose translation of a religious poem by Guillaume de Deguileville, The Pilgrimage of the Lyf of the Manhode (The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man):

“With inne this bred al the souereyn good is put … bodiliche and rialliche, presentliche and verreyliche.” (“Within this bread all the sovereign good is put … bodily and really, presently and verily.”)

The religious historian John Foxe also used the word in a doctrinal sense in his multi-volume Actes and Monuments (1563), shorter editions of which were popularly known as The Book of Martyrs.

In a passage about the Roman Catholic persecution of a Protestant who was burned at the stake in 1410, Foxe writes: “He held this opinion, that it was not the body of Christe really, the whiche was sacramentally vsed in the churche.”

This literal sense of “really”—both religious and otherwise—was later joined by another.

In the mid-16th century, the OED says, people began using it to mean truly, indeed or positively. And somewhat later it was used in the same sense as an intensifier to mean very or thoroughly.

Among the OED’s citations for this sense of the word is a quotation from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722): “This last Bill was really frightful.” (The “bill” was a weekly tally of the dead.)

A less grim, and more modern, example comes from a 2003 issue of the New York Post: “I have a really big scoop for you.”

In the early 17th century another use of “really” came along—the one expressing dismay or protest.

Here’s an early example, from Aphra Behn’s comedy The Roundheads (1682): “Really, Madam, I shou’d be glad to know by what other Title you wou’d be distinguish’d?”

A more recent OED citation is from John Braithwaite’s novel Never Sleep Three in a Bed (1969): “Being hauled out of mud-holes by horses was bad enough. But oxen, really!”

Finally we come to the “really” that’s usually framed as a question, though it’s more like a sideways statement of skepticism, doubt, or surprise. This one cropped up in the mid-18th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for this sense of the word comes from Samuel Richardson’s novel The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753):

“ ‘The Count of Belvedere. He was more earnest in his favour—’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yes, really—than I thought he ought to be.’ ”

This is the “really” that’s doubled in the sarcastic usage you ask about: “Really? Really?”

As we said, this repetitive usage is new to us, but we’re not really surprised!

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