What’chu Talkin’ ‘Bout, Media?

Tee-shirt designs aren't usually a good source of canonical grammar.

Tee-shirt designs aren't usually a good source of canonical grammar.

Mere minutes ago I had occasion to use that most useful of idioms, “D’oh”, in a text message. Not only am I a lame Gen Xer but I’m also an iPhone tragic, and I noticed after I typed the word out that Steve Jobs had chosen to correct my spelling.

Apple seem to have decided that either Homer Simpson’s most famous exclamation (included in the OED in 2001 as merely “doh”) featured the apostrophe after the ‘o’, or that I was actually trying to type a less common word (that I’d never heard of) which is spelled “do’h”.

So how was the spelling of “d’oh” agreed upon at The Simpsons? Hard to say. I’ve read a bunch of articles that all cite the “(Annoyed Grunt)” origin, but none comment on how that particular abbreviated spelling was chosen.

Of course, “d’oh” slipping into our lexicon is old news. So why am I considering it again? The death of Gary Coleman.

Apart from numerous gags about “strokes” (he actually died due to a brain haemorrhage) and his diminutive stature – mostly in online comments sections – the reporting on his death has almost universally included his catchphrase “Whatchutalkinbout, Willis?”

Or “Whatchootalkin’bout, Willis?” (Time).

Or “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” (Reuters).

Or “What’choo talkin ’bout, Willis?” (The New York Times)

Or “Whatchu talkin’ bout?” (Associated Press)

A blogger has been collecting the media’s variations of the line that made Coleman famous.

So what is the canonical grammar of the line? It’s about ten times longer than “D’oh” and potentially includes thrice the apostrophes. Since it never reached the Oxford English Dictionary, we may never know. Surely Wikipedians have been grappling with the formatting over the last 48 hours. They’ve settled on “What’chu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”, which is what the Washington Post ran with.

Sadly, now that the progenitor of its pronunciation is dead, the manner in which the phrase should be written may remain as existential a question as what Willis himself was indeed talkin’ ’bout.  His celebrity life, and the puzzling line, seems to be summed up by a Us Magazine interview with porn’s D-grade walrus impersonator: ‘Ron Jeremy: Gary Coleman Hated Saying “Whatchu Talkin’ Bout” Line’. So we can presume he never deigned to write it down. Thus the Rosetta Stone has vanished, and with it, another part of our cultural history will be forever mired in controversy.

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  1. Daniel Zugna says:

    I wonder if Willis himself ever knew what he was actually talkin’ ’bout?

  2. Mel Campbell says:

    I don’t care for the apostrophe in the “what are you” part of the catchphrase. I prefer “whatchu talkin’ ’bout”, like AP wrote.

  3. TimT says:

    But surely the correct way to spell it would be orthodox – ‘what you talking about, Willis’? The words aren’t under dispute, and spelling doesn’t exist to make distinctions between different types of pronunciation and different accents.

    Writers can of course use variations on phonetic spellings to indicate how words are pronounced, especially in fiction, and I suppose the examples given here fit into that category. But I think a great deal of freedom is allowed in these cases, so there is no one correct phonetic spelling of Coleman’s catchphrase.

    Homer’s ‘D’oh’ is a more interesting case because it’s suitably distinctive (if not suitably distinguished) to be a new word: so who decided how to spell it?

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