ENGLISCH/855: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (166) Why oh why (SB)


166. Why oh why

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

...Have you ever heard the following explanation: "Wi-oooh-wi" (just phonetic, I couldn't find out how to spell it right)? When I heard it first, it was uttered by an old lady and I thought immediately that she was in pain. Later I heard it standing in a crowd of spectators watching a game of soccer. Now, I am able to understand that this uttering is some sort of complaint or grief, but what does it mean and when do you use it.


Matthias B. (from Vienna/Austria)


Dear Mr B.,

... Now I come to your question about how to use the expression "why oh why". This is by the way the correct spelling. Well, that is just another way of saying "why" in a very emphatic manner. For example could it be used in the following complaint:

"Why oh why were you rude to your boss? That was very stupid of you. Work is so difficult to find. What will you do, if you loose your job now."

In this example the one asking "why oh why" is very upset and can not understand why the other one, e.g. her husband, was rude to the boss and risked their income.

The expression is not used very often except sometimes in letters of complaint. So you can forget all about it. Especially because the expression does show emphasis and it must be said with the right intonation.

There are various other expressions which can be used to emphasize the word "why", e.g. "why on earth" or "why the hell".

"Why on earth did you get up at four o' clock this
morning?" - "Because I hadn't finished all my work."

Another expression is "Why the dickens?" or "What the dickens?" That is perhaps a little old fashioned these days but you still hear it. It used to be slang and means "why the devil" because "dickens" begins with the letter "d" and so does "devil". Even in everyday's English "why the devil" is often considered as not acceptable. In any case it's very informal, so native speakers of English often say the old fashioned "why the dickens" instead. This way slang expressions very often become colloquial English.

To avoid all bad language here is another and really quite acceptable way of asking "Why" with emphasis: "What ever possessed you to do that?" For example:

"What ever possessed you to invite so many people?" - "Well, I've got a lot of friends"

Or another more simple way to stress your question without using slang is to say: "Why ever?".

"Sally can't add two and two together. Why ever did
she say, she got a degree in math?" - "Because she
has, actually" ...

Now, why oh why don't you keep sending me your questions immediately?


Mrs Gobbledygook

11 June 2009