Q: Is it incorrect or impolite to say “What?” when not hearing something clearly? I’ve heard several people respond, “Don’t say ‘what’ to me,” which I found puzzling the first few times (of course, I responded with, “What?”). Have you heard of this?
A: In my youth, I was occasionally criticized by my elders for saying, “What?” But I never learned what was supposed to be so bad about it.
Maybe I was expected to say, “Could you please repeat that?” or “Excuse me?” or “What’s that again?” or something of the sort. I can’t remember.
At any rate, I see nothing about this supposed social faux pas in Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.
I have to admit, though, that “What?” sounds abrupt, and implies that the speaker hasn’t been clear. I certainly wouldn’t use it in conversation with President Obama or Queen Elizabeth or Chief Justice Roberts.
Nevertheless, the usage has a long history. The Oxford English Dictionary says the interrogative “What?” used elliptically to stand for “What did you say?” or “What is it?” dates from the 1300s.
Here’s a citation from Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers (1837): ” ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Cold punch,’ murmured Mr. Pickwick, as he sunk to sleep again. ‘What?’ demanded Captain Boldwig. No reply.”
[Update: A British reader of the blog says, “Over here in class-riven England, the lower middle classes think ‘What?’ is rude and instruct their children to say ‘Pardon?’ instead. The upper classes, however, consider ‘Pardon?’ a lower middle faux pas and tell their children to say ‘What?’ “]